First, don’t get defensive about results that point to areas in need of improvement.
Federal agencies recently received their 2018 employee survey results that will be followed by our Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, a rich supply of data offering important insights into how employees view their jobs, leaders and the work environment.
It is critical for political and career executives to closely examine this data, not only to assess the overall level of employee engagement at their organizations, but to comb through responses of more than 70 survey questions to get a sense of how employees feel about specific aspects of their work life.
These issues include whether employees understand how their work relates to the agency’s goals and priorities, the pivotal role of frontline leaders, the perceptions of senior leaders and whether employees have enough faith in management to disclose a suspected violation of law or regulation without fear of reprisal. The questions also focus on whether employees feel their skills are used well, whether they believe they are recognized for doing good work and whether they have an opportunity for professional development.
Given our personal experiences in government and now as leaders at organizations that have been recognized as best places to work, we firmly believe that understanding the perspective of employees and proactively addressing their concerns will result in greater workforce engagement, better performance and more satisfied customers. That is why the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group have joined together to produce the 2018 Best Places to Work rankings—to assist government leaders in creating work environments that allow employees to do what they really want to do, which is serve the public.
Agency leaders should closely analyze the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, maintaining an open mind and resisting the urge to become defensive about results that point to areas in need of improvement. The point of the survey and the Best Places to Work data is not to find fault, but to assist leaders in becoming better stewards of their organizations.
Leaders should try to put the data in context by comparing the federal survey and Best Places to Work scores to peer agencies and the government overall as well as look at the year-to-year scores for their organizations. A score without any context may not appear to be high, but an improvement from the year before can be cause for celebration. A low score or a decline on a particular issue, on the other hand, will signal the need for attention.
After analyzing the data, the hard work will begin. While the survey data and insights provided by the Best Places to Work analysis will shed light on what’s going on in an organization, the data alone cannot explain why employees feel the way they do. To identify the “why” and to develop a targeted strategy, leaders should initiate follow-up conversations with employees to probe deeper into the critical workplace issues.
At the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, leaders six years ago made a commitment to confront steadily declining workplace engagement, and that sustained effort has resulted in a greatly improved Best Places to Work ranking. After numerous meetings with employees, the leadership focused on improving communication across the agency, greater recognition of employee contributions and better leadership development and employee training opportunities. As the SEC has shown, paying close attention to workforce needs and achieving high levels of employee engagement is not a one-time event, but a marathon that requires a sustained commitment.
The keys to success involve understanding workforce concerns and then developing a plan based on the feedback to initiate change. Sometimes this may require a major effort, but in other instances, action need not be overly time-consuming,
Quick wins can be as simple as writing a thank you note to employees who have completed important projects (in 2017, less than half of federal survey respondents were satisfied with the recognition they receive for doing a good job), or scheduling office hours and encouraging employees to drop by. Keeping employees in the loop by sending out newsletters or emails with workplace updates can have a positive effect.
As former Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke said while accepting the award for most-improved large agency in the 2017 Best Places to Work rankings, “Think big, but also don’t forget to act small.”
Max Stier is the president and CEO of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He previously worked at the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Danny Werfel is a partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group. He previously served as acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and controller of the Office of Management and Budget. For more information on the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, a joint initiative of the Partnership and BCG, go to bestplacestowork.org