Happiness and Productivity Go Hand-in-Hand

Federal Labor Relations Authority chairwoman oversees dramatic improvement in employee satisfaction and agency performance.

When Carol Waller Pope was designated chairwoman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority in 2009, the independent agency was struggling not only with accomplishing its mission but also with keeping its employees happy. That year, FLRA scored lowest among small agencies in employee satisfaction on a nonprofit’s annual rankings.

Just one year later, the agency had achieved a dramatic turnaround. FLRA boasted a record-breaking 250 percent jump in its employee satisfaction score on the Partnership for Public Service’s 2010 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey. The agency’s score continued to climb in 2011, and it is now ranked seventh in employee satisfaction among 35 small agencies.

Pope, the first FLRA career employee to serve as chairwoman, said Monday during the Federal Managers Association’s annual National Convention and Management Training Seminar that it’s important to realize that employee happiness and mission accomplishment are interrelated. After taking the lead at the agency, Pope focused dually on tackling the backlogs that plagued FLRA’s adjudication of labor disputes and on making a concerted effort to “develop, manage and utilize the agency’s human capital resources.” Previously, she said, “we weren’t actively managing human capital, and employees felt it.”

The Partnership’s survey supported Pope’s instinct that focusing on employees would improve agency execution. “It may be tempting to shrug off efforts to ensure that federal employees are satisfied with their jobs and their organizations, but satisfaction drives employee engagement and ultimately leads to better performance,” the Partnership’s report stated. “Investing in the federal workforce and paying attention to employee viewpoints isn't about happiness, it's about building a more effective government and delivering results for Americans.”

To drive home this point, FLRA leaders note the past two years have brought an almost 90 percent reduction in the overall inventory of the agency’s over-age cases, or cases that are more than 90 days old from the date of filing to the date of action on the charge. FLRA also saw measurable productivity increases in the Office of the General Counsel, the Federal Service Impasses Panel and in its delivery of training to customers.

The Partnership’s research showed, given Pope’s commitment to employee satisfaction, the agency’s marked improvements shouldn’t be surprising. While many factors shape how employees view their workplace, the 2011 survey illustrated that for the sixth year in a row the primary driver of employee satisfaction in the federal workforce is effective leadership, particularly with respect to senior-level managers.

Especially encouraging for other leaders and managers hoping to emulate some of FLRA’s successes, Pope said most of the agency’s improvements in case management and human capital did not require budget increases. “Doing more with less doesn’t necessarily mean working harder,” she said. “It can mean working smarter and focusing on the things that matter most.”

While she is clearly proud of her agency and its accomplishments, Pope does not appear to be resting on her laurels. Although FLRA leaders declared 2010 “The Year of the Employee,” every year really should be that way, she said, adding the agency must stay continually focused on reinvention, reengagement and revitalization.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.