Here’s how agencies can help ease the return to offices

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A positive, people-centric approach is critical.

The federal workforce is experiencing a perfect storm of events combining to transform the employee experience. President Biden announced in his State of the Union address that “the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.” Meanwhile, a second governmentwide pulse survey, powered by Qualtrics, shows that agencies have significant work to do to improve how employees experience the reentry process. On a 5-point scale, employees gave leaders a lukewarm score of 3.6 when it comes to doing what’s right to protect employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. Employees also said they are somewhat likely to take a job with more workplace flexibility or remote options. 

This is a critical moment. It’s up to leaders to create the environment that will enable the federal government to retain its current workforce and attract needed talent. Based on best practices we have seen in organizations around the globe and leadership insights from a recent panel discussion with federal government executives from the General Services Administration, Small Business Administration and U.S. Air Force, here are six steps federal leaders should take to create a better experience for employees returning to the office:

Bring an empathy mindset. The reason we pay attention to employee experience measures isn’t so we can “improve our score” on an engagement survey. It’s to better understand our employees’ needs and shape work experiences that enable them to thrive. Leaders must respect the legitimacy of employees’ perspectives, recognizing that every voice matters for an organization to create an inclusive sense of belonging. Even when you don’t like the negative survey data, it is critical to empathize with the experiences people are having as they struggle, like all of us, to navigate the challenges that work and life throw their way.    

As the federal government begins returning to the physical workplace, agencies are using the latest employee pulse insights to reduce the risk of churn along the way.

“Employees told us they would potentially leave if given a remote opportunity elsewhere. So we need to be strategic in how we view the future of work,” said Elias Hernandez, chief human capital officer at the Small Business Administration. “As we get ready to complete the re-entry into the physical workplace, employees have spoken to us. We have demonstrated that we are listening to them, and we have put in place actions as a result of listening to what they are telling us. The pulse survey took two minutes to complete but the feedback it provided was invaluable.”

Look at strengths and weaknesses. The governmentwide pulse and the results of the recently released Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are important places to start. It is natural for leaders to focus on the lower performing items. But a strengths-based approach can be more powerful. Highest performing items help you identify the strengths you can build on as you address weaker areas. 

U.S. Air Force Chief Experience Officer Colt Whittall explained, “User satisfaction with help desks and local support ranges widely between Air Force bases. Some see it as a problem, but I see it as an opportunity,” he said. “By identifying what we are doing at the top performing teams and replicating that, we can bring everyone up.”

Co-create your employees’ experience. Once you understand the drivers of your employees’ experiences, you can take action to improve them. Bringing employees an already-baked action plan misses an opportunity to engage them in designing their own destiny. Applying collaboration techniques allows employees to develop creative approaches to workplace challenges. A hybrid or remote workforce can use online tools like Qualtrics’ action planning module to add and share ideas, up-vote their favorites, and publish final action plans. Co-creation also gives leaders an opportunity to educate employees on any complexities, so they have a better understanding of why the organization has certain policies. This two-way communication builds trust and leads to smarter decision making. 

Design for diversity, equity and inclusion. Out of all return-to-office questions in the second governmentwide pulse, employees gave the lowest score when asked if they think their agency’s reentry arrangements are fair in accounting for employees’ diverse needs and situations. This means agencies have room for improvement in aligning their DEI commitments with their employees’ tangible needs. Leaders have the opportunity right now to walk the talk of DEI by analyzing the relationships between employees’ identities and their experiences. Intersectional analysis empowers you to get beyond traditional categories to truly understand people’s lived experiences and create personalization at scale to accommodate the wide range of employee needs. 

Take meaningful action—and communicate it. The most important element of experience management is the actions an organization takes based on the insights gathered. Employees who don’t hear for months about the decisions made based on their feedback, or who never experience tangible improvements in their work lives, will stop responding to organizations’ requests for their perspectives. But when you ask employees how they feel, then communicate what they told you and what you’re going to do about it, accountability and trust are built.

“It’s important for the workforce to feel valued and safe, and have a great deal of trust in their leadership,” said Traci DiMartini, chief human capital officer at the General Services Administration. “One way that happens is through constant communication, transparency and when it comes down to it, sincerity. Employees are smart. They want to know we are listening to them, and they want to feel validated.”  

Be ready to be flexible as experiences evolve. The future of work has arrived with complexity emerging as our new normal. One of the most important contributions employee experience management makes to organizations is increased flexibility. By continuously listening, understanding and acting on employees’ experiences, organizations can build adaptive processes into operating systems. 

With experience management capabilities, leaders can be more confident in their ability to set the right return-to-office policies and attract, engage and retain the right people to accomplish the critical mission of government: serving people. 

Sydney Heimbrock is chief industry advisor for government at Qualtrics and a former executive at the Office of Personnel Management

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