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What Makes Them the Best Places to Work


Buried in the last few years of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings was a trend line I hoped was on the upward swing – the percentage of agencies with improved scores. In 2013, 24 percent of agencies had improved their employee satisfaction and commitment scores; that percentage climbed to 43 percent in 2014. That improvement wasn’t enough, however, to right the ship. But this year, with 70 percent of agencies improving their scores – the federal government finally saw an overall improvement in employee engagement.

So what can the government do to keep the momentum going? First, federal leaders can keep up the good work of showing employees that engagement is a top priority by looping them into the decision-making process and transparently sharing data at all levels of the organization. Second, federal leaders can maintain and strengthen two-way communication channels to demonstrate that employee concerns are being heard and addressed (the Labor Department, in particular, did this well during the past year, and the scores proved it).

Third, one of the best ways to drive employee engagement and mission delivery is by targeting the team level through real-time, regular check-ins with employees.

Deloitte, an organization where I have spent seven years focused on human capital issues, used to spend more than 2 million hours and hundreds of millions of dollars a year doing employee performance reviews. But at the end of this annual process, the organization told its most valued asset – its high-performing people – that on the whole, they were average.

After some soul-searching, careful research and analysis, the company decided there was a better way to engage its people and drive even performance. Deloitte decided to turn performance management on its head and bring it to the team level in real time.

Now, at least every two weeks, project leaders and their team members check in with one another and talk about what’s happening with clients, what support is needed, or what barriers might be affecting their work.

The regular check-ins also give team leaders the opportunity to become better managers – practice makes perfect, right? This approach gives them just that – the ability to coach, test their leadership philosophy and build a stronger team.

On the flip side, team members want to develop their careers. The regular coaching and support provided by their team leaders does just that.  Most importantly, conversations are centered on the work employees are doing now – not a look back six or 12 months later. In fact, Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert recently reinforced the importance of meaningful performance feedback as a top driver of enhancing engagement.  

While such a major overhaul of the federal government’s performance management system may be more of a long-term transition, there are steps agencies can take now to create a team-based approach:

  • Think big: Engagement is more than a survey index. Engagement solutions should be tied to the work itself, the team and the organization.
  • Start local: Engagement starts at the local level and requires organizational support. Empower teams to own and implement strategies for improving engagement.
  • Act quickly: Engagement is complex. Find what works by using a process that spends little time analyzing and more time experimenting, learning and adjusting your strategies.

If teams in more agencies can get to the heart of what’s getting in the way of their work, and build stronger team members and leaders through regular coaching sessions, this upward trend in government employee satisfaction can continue.

Sean Morris, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, has been a strategic adviser to government executives for nearly 20 years. He leads Deloitte’s Federal Human Capital practice, which co-produced the 2015 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings with the Partnership for Public Service.

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