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4 Ways to Improve Morale Post-Shutdown

A turning point for federal employee engagement is upon us.

Most federal managers have spent the last several weeks focusing on Congress, the budget impasse and factors outside of their control.  The good news is that employees have returned to work and federal managers now have the ability to control one of the most important drivers for the future success of their teams – employee engagement. 

The bad news, however, is that the effects of the government shutdown may affect employee engagement for far longer than federal offices were closed.  The short-term nature of the budget deal creates ongoing uncertainty for employees’ future, impacting their emotions, perceptions and behaviors.  Additionally, while most managers acknowledge the importance of morale and engagement, they often struggle to define what it means and how to improve it.  However, the most successful managers in this turbulent time will be those who focus on rebuilding employee engagement.

CEB, a member-based advisory company, has worked closely with over 2,000 public and private sector organizations, surveying over 10,000 employees to understand and identify the key drivers of employee engagement.  CEB defines engagement as the amount of commitment, effort and intention to stay that employees exhibit given past experiences, present events and future expectations.  Overall, CEB has found that the employees most committed to their organizations put forth 57 percent more effort and are 87 percent less likely to leave than employees who consider themselves disengaged.

Given data from The Federal Employee ViewPoint Survey (FedView), federal agencies and managers have demonstrated a wide range of success in their ability to drive employee engagement.  CEB research shows that the organization, managers, and peers each make a difference in an employee’s level of engagement; however, effective managers are proven to be the most impactful.

Part of the challenge in improving engagement is that many managers are uncertain of where to focus their efforts, given the many potential drivers of engagement.  CEB analysis indicates that, rather than taking a blanket approach, managers should focus on four key imperatives that are proven to have a disproportionate impact on improving engagement.

1. Reconnect Employees to Mission – It is critical to communicate how an individual’s work connects to the agency’s broader mission and strategy. CEB research shows that this is the single largest driver of engagement. When individuals understand how their role contributes to the mission, the extra effort they contribute to the organization raises by one-third.

2. Navigate Role Complexities – The workplace has become increasingly complex and requires a large amount of collaboration with others in order to accomplish goals.  Some managers try to simplify work by filtering activities and information, but these tactics are often unsuccessful. Instead, managers can improve employees’ performance by facilitating relationships and providing context and advice to help them effectively prioritize their own work and navigate complexity.  

3. Empower Workforce Contribution – FedView survey results indicate that the percentage of employees who have a feeling of empowerment dropped more than 3 percent from 2011 to 2012. This is likely to trend downward again in 2013 following sequestration and the partial shutdown.  Empowerment is an important engagement driver, as employees who feel empowered have engagement levels more than 20 percent higher than those who are less empowered. Managers can empower employees by allowing them to guide decisions, influence the way work is done and offer ideas for improvement.  

4. Focus on the Future – In order to retain employees, organizations must focus not only on their present experiences but also on future opportunities, roles and career paths.  Building engagement by focusing on future expectations as well as current experiences can result in a 17 percent increase in an employee’s willingness to accept a new role within the organization and a 38 percent increase in willingness to accept increases in responsibilities.

Federal managers, while faced with many external forces beyond their control, have the ability to control all four of these proven drivers of engagement.  Even better, these strategies focus not on changing existing compensation structures or performance models, but instead stress the importance of effective communication and a connection to mission.  After several challenging weeks for federal employees, managers should now seize the opportunity to use the shut-down as a turning point to positively improve engagement and remind staff of their important contributions in serving the public.

Kris van Riper is a managing director and Elisabeth Joyce is a director at CEB, a member-based advisory company.

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