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Federal Survey is “Just a Start” in Building Lasting Employee Engagement

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In late April, government workers will once again lend valuable insights into how they feel about their jobs, supervisors and senior leadership through the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) considers the survey a critical tool in assessing engagement in the workforce, through the “consistent, reliable and actionable information it provides the federal government, each agency, and lower level offices within each organization,” according to Beth Cobert, acting director for the OPM, in a March memo announcing the survey. The collective efforts of executive leaders “in conveying to each and every employee the importance of their feedback to you, and how it will drive improvements in your agency, is the first step towards obtaining effective and meaningful FEVS results,” Cobert wrote.

Given the survey’s mixed track record of results, it’s admirable for the OPM to express such unrestrained commitment. Last year, overall employee engagement rose a mere 1 percentage point, to 64 percent. Any increase in this year’s engagement score will need to triple that pace to reach the stated goal of 67 percent. That would be a tall order, especially when an agency like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has seen engagement decline from 60 percent in 2011 to 53 percent last year.

To arrive at more definitive conclusions about this year’s findings, OPM is proposing to whittle the number of questions from 45 to 11, with an emphasis on “stronger, relevant and unambiguous questions.” Proposed sample questions include: “How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work?” “How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization?” “How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job?”

Survey participants will also weigh in on whether …

  • … their units have the job-relevant skills needed to accomplish organizational goals
  • … the size of their workloads is reasonable
  • … there are adequate opportunities for career growth and professional development.

I’m confident that the OPM is heading in a great direction here. While there will likely be fewer questions, they cover much ground that speaks to the essentials of job satisfaction/fulfillment. In a recent article, for example, Bersin by Deloitte Principal and Founder Josh Bersin presented the five drivers of what he calls “the simply irresistible organization.” Here they are, along with my take on how they translate to the federal workplace:

Meaningful work. To an individual, the government can look so intimidatingly large, leading to potential doubts about one’s ability to make a difference. That’s why managers must break down units into smaller teams, and empower those teams to autonomously pursue agency objectives in an impactful and hopefully measurable way. Managers should also effectively communicate to each individual about how day-to-day tasks directly contribute to the ultimate mission.

Hands-on management. Make no mistake – “hands on” is not tantamount to “micromanaging” here. Micromanagers, after all, never welcome the autonomy required to ensure ideal engagement. The hands-on manager, however, combines clear, transparent goals with the right level of coaching (close enough to give useful direction, yet distant enough to avoid accusations of always “looking over the shoulders of employees”).

Positive work. Good bosses don’t wait until the annual review to acknowledge the accomplishments of their teams. Instead, agencies should cultivate a culture of recognition, praising daily efforts and longer-term initiatives with regular awards/rewards and informal, impromptu praise. (Never underestimate the power of the handwritten note, by the way.)

Growth opportunity. Professionals these days – including highly sought Millennials – don’t want to get “stuck in neutral.” Virtually everyone yearns for the chance to ascend to a loftier standing with respect to impact, influence and visibility. With the constant promotion and availability of training and development programs – addressing “hard” skills which hone position-specific capabilities, and “soft” skills which focus on communications and leadership grooming – workers will see that their agency has a stake in their future.

Trust in leadership. Great leadership is often defined by “the intangibles.” But there are common characteristics, including “leading by example” in serving the agency’s mission; implementing methods and acquiring resources to make it easier for staffers to do their jobs; conveying genuine transparency about organizational direction and current/pending challenges; and inspiring people to do their best every day. Every component here proves essential. And, when an agency establishes them as a standard of best practice among managers, they combine to offer to more than the sum of their parts.

You can see that the five drivers are all about the human element. But don’t forget that there is a technical side to this, particularly when we deploy people analytics to maximize the actionable value of data. Through people analytics, you can determine which units have the most and least engaged teams. You can assess the “just right” amount of manager-worker interaction to come up with a winning “hands-on” balance. You can identify how often supervisors are providing feedback to their direct reports, and whether the guidance results in improved performance. You can find out if employees like what they do.

The upshot: The FEVS is a terrific tool. But it’s just a start. By adopting policies which embrace “people” and tech-enabled practices, managers will see soaring engagement scores – thus boosting productivity, quality of work and retention. When this happens, everybody wins: agencies, employees and taxpayers.

How “irresistible” is that?

Joe Abusamra is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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4 Comments

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Mark Hammer

I have been opposed to the annual nature of this, and similar, surveys since the start.
One of the fundamental principles of organizational surveys is that you never ask about things you either have no intention of, or no means to, change. So it is exceedingly rare than anyone will ask about satisfaction with benefits, or the competence of senior management.
One of the corollaries of that principle is that you don’t ask *again* about things which you haven’t had enough time to fix (assuming there was anything wrong). If the public service were a fast food outlet, with constant turnover of staff, such that waiting a year meant that one was looking at a tabula rasa, that would be one thing. But for the long-time employee, asking, yet again, about something that hasn’t budged since the last time the question was asked, is a bit like impatiently re-asking a 5 year-old if “they like the soup”, as the child waits for the temperature to drop to a point where it isn’t going to burn their mouth. When they finally get to tasting it, they are unlikely to be bursting with enthusiasm. Moreover, as important as trust in senior management is important, when things get asked about, without having had enough time to change, confidence in the good intentions, and competence, of senior management – both essential determinants of trust in management – are unlikely to be high.
Sometimes the people at the top, who care so much, need to be a bit more patient.

Profile Photo Joe Abusamra

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment — great insight. I agree that the pace of change can often be excruciatingly slow, and when the pace of a survey, for example, outpaces change, the underlying impact on morale is open to taking another hit. Surveys like this are best served when expectations are realistic, and also that they match reality.

Thanks,
Joe

Mark Hammer

Thanks Joe. I guess the trick is to monitor, via annual surveys, those things that are amenable to short-term change, and insert content related to things that require a longer view every other, or every third survey.
As I never hesitate to remind people, an employee survey is always a tacit promise: you tell me what’s not working for you, and I promise to fix it. You NEVER want any survey to be interpreted as a *broken* promise, simply because not enough time has passed.