Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: How to strengthen federal workers' job satisfaction

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

The newly released 2014 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings show declining employee job satisfaction at a majority of agencies, but there is strong evidence that committed leaders can make a difference in creating more positive and productive work environments.

According to the “Best Places to Work” data, 43 percent of federal agencies bucked the overall government-wide trend by engaging employees and improving morale. How did they do it?
One prime example is the Department of Labor, which improved it’s ranking from 17th to 10th place among 19 large federal agencies, and registered gains in all 10 workplace categories that were measured — including leadership, training, pay, rewards and advancement, and teamwork.

Seema Nanda, the department’s deputy chief of staff, said Labor Secretary Tom Perez came to office in July 2013 “understanding that employee satisfaction and engagement is critical to our effectiveness and our mission.”

Perez held an off-site training session for senior leaders in December 2013 to outline a broad workforce strategy and to get buy-in, asking his staff to carefully examine federal employee survey results and to develop specific plans, while also focusing on issues such as encouraging innovation and improving supervision.

In addition, Perez has improved communication and solicited feedback from employees by holding town hall meetings, as well as by having management teams visit regional offices for separate group listening sessions with employees and managers. The department also created an internal online site called Idea Mill, a crowd-sourcing tool that allows employees to submit ideas, offer comments and vote on the proposals that are submitted to a leadership committee (which includes union representatives, staff members from the human resources department, and the office of the secretary and deputy secretary).

More than 600 ideas were submitted in the first few months. The results included clearer signage so people can more easily find their way around the headquarters building, mileage markers for people who exercise by walking in the corridors, and a number of work-flexibility proposals that are being discussed by a labor-management forum. The regional listening sessions also resulted in a review of how employee performance plans are structured and evaluated.

“We are learning that improving employee satisfaction and engagement is not a linear or a perfect process,” Nanda said. “We have made some mistakes along the way, and we realize that a culture change does not happen overnight, but we intend to keep working at it.”

Another prime example can be found at the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), which in 2007 recorded the lowest employee satisfaction and commitment score in the history of the “Best Places to Work” rankings and was last among small agencies. It has since made a remarkable turnaround, culminating in placing 5th out of 30 small agencies in this year’s rankings.

Vicki Barber, the agency’s chief human resources officer, and Sarah Spooner, the executive director, said the FLRA’s leaders have made employee job satisfaction a high priority and continuously consult with the staff members and union representatives to improve the agency culture. The agency, for example, initiated a pilot project that resulted in the use of paralegals, after attorneys felt the extra help would lead to greater productivity. In other instances, managers have collaborated with employees to temporarily alter work assignments to meet pressing agency needs.

There has been regular communication with employees — including a newsletter, town halls, listening tours by leaders with employees around the country, and a labor-management forum to discuss employee survey results so problems can be quickly addressed.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also is making positive strides. It is the most improved mid-size agency in the 2014 rankings, marking the second year in a row it has increased its “Best Places to Work” score after a period of decline.

The SEC’s chief human capital officer, Lacey Dingman, said Chairwoman Mary Jo White has “made employee engagement a top priority.”

One of White’s first actions after being appointed in early 2013 was to conclude agreements with the National Treasury Employees Union that allowed some employees to telecommute as many as five days a week, expanded child-care subsidies, permitted new flexible work schedules and included the first compensation package in more than five years.

The SEC has established joint labor–management partnerships in each office and division, and launched an “All Invested” initiative that celebrates staff accomplishments and creates more cohesiveness around the agency’s mission. The leadership team also has held regular town hall meetings to engage employees and maintain an open dialogue.

These three agency examples illustrate that progress can be made if there is a commitment and determination by leaders to do so. These aren't just temporary fixes, but ongoing efforts to create a culture that welcomes then acts on employee feedback to boost engagement and job satisfaction.

If your agency has taken steps to improve the workplace, please share these ideas in the comment section below, or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Dec 23, 2014 at 9:57 AM

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