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'Stepchildren' Feds Who Work Outside D.C. Report Lower Engagement on Average

Public Service nonprofit offers tips for motivating field office staff.

At a time when the Trump administration is seeking to move more agency functions outside of Washington, D.C., a new interpretation of survey data shows that employees out in the field score slightly lower on workplace engagement than their colleagues in the capital.

An analysis of the 2018 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government data released this week by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting group showed that agency employees outside D.C.—about 85% of feds—had overall engagement scores of 63.3 points out of 100, or 3.1 points lower than the people at headquarters.

“Employees working away from their agency’s headquarters reported lower satisfaction on every aspect of the workplace experience measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, from work-life balance and their views of leaders to training and development opportunities,” said the study, titled, “Beyond the Beltway: How Federal Leaders Can Engage Employees Working Across the Nation.”

To illustrate how some agencies have successfully kept far-flung employees engaged with leadership, the analysts interviewed managers at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Managing a workforce spread across the country can pose a unique set of challenges when it comes to employee engagement,” the report said. “In conversations with federal leaders and employees, we heard that those in the field often feel isolated from the rest of their agency and disconnected from senior leaders. We were told employees sometimes….feel they are treated as ‘stepchildren’ and do not think leaders at headquarters consult with regional offices on decisions that impact their work.”

Too often, the report added, “field employees can perceive a headquarters bias when it comes to recognition for good work and that field employees often feel that their work is not valued.” There is also a perception that field office people have fewer opportunities for career advancement.

The management tools for removing impediments to full engagement among field office staff can be grouped into five themes, the report noted: Leaders who are engaged themselves, regular communication, efforts at community building, empowering employees and recognizing them.

At OSHA, where 1,566 employees work at regional offices versus only 298 in Washington, the engagement score is higher in the field than at headquarters (71.8 points versus 69.3). “The direct link between the work in the field and the mission of the agency could explain why,” a manager said. “It is easy for compliance officers to see how their efforts help create safer workplaces.” But it’s also true that OSHA leadership also takes affirmative steps in communication, such as giving each regional administrator access to their Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Data in the expectation that they create a plan to improve scores.

At the FTC, where 148 work in the field versus 967 in downtown Washington, field office employees’ engagement scores averaged 86.2 points, compared with 85.1 points in the Washington office. The emphasis is on “equipping every region with the staff and expertise that they need to succeed,” the report noted. The chief human capital officer stressed the goal of leveraging “the skills of each attorney regardless of the individual’s geographic location……The FTC’s leadership also makes a point of recognizing employees for their achievements regardless of where they are located,” such as at an annual “Chairman’s Award” ceremony.

At the Patent and Trademark Office, where there are 3,289 field employees but 9,285 in the Alexandria, Va., headquarters, field employees average an engagement score of 77.9 points, versus 76.8 for those at HQ. “The work is very autonomous,” a manager explained. “If I am an examiner, I just have to get the work done and I have discretion on when I do it and what hours of the day I do it.” Rather than “resorting to micromanagement, USPTO’s leaders created a system based on trust where examiners are empowered to complete their work with appropriate oversight from their supervisors.”

In recent years, the Patent office’s telecommuting program—once a governmentwide model—came under fire due to episodes in which some examiners were abusing the privilege, the report noted. But a special effort has been made to develop “robust tools for collaboration”—teleconferencing, instant messaging and various workflow applications, the report said. “We also make a point to livestream events and have remote participation to help employees feel a part of the community,” a manager added. A few times a year, examiners from across the country are brought to USPTO’s campus to “collaborate, network, get training and do things together.”