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Feds’ Engagement and Job Satisfaction Rises Despite—or Because of—Pandemic

Officials who administered the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey warned against making sweeping conclusions about the 2020 results, due to changes in the survey's timing and some of its content.

Federal employees reported the biggest increase in their engagement and job satisfaction in more than a decade when they took the government’s annual survey of workplace attitudes last fall, although officials warned against making sweeping conclusions based on the data.

The Office of Personnel Management on Monday announced the results of the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which was delayed twice last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the federal government, employee engagement increased by four points from 2019 to 72 out of 100, while the global satisfaction index, which seeks to measure employees’ happiness with their job, jumped from 65 in 2019 to 69 last year.

OPM officials warned against making any sweeping conclusions based on year-over-year data related to the 2020 survey due to a number of new variables in how the survey was administered. OPM Acting Director of Strategy and Innovation Kimberly Wells said that the agency significantly streamlined the survey—reducing the “core content” from 73 questions to 38—and although the questions relating to engagement and satisfaction remained unchanged, the survey length and how questions are ordered can impact respondents’ answers. The timing of the survey’s administration due to the pandemic also could have played a role in how employees responded.

But Wells said one thing is clear: the survey underscores the “resilience” of the federal workforce.

“I want to underscore, from a high level, an observation that maybe some of the things we’re seeing here [are] something around the values of the federal workforce,” Wells said. “One thing they want to do is make sure they are contributing in a meaningful way to society. That’s what draws people to work in public service, and we see some results in the survey that support that perspective . . . From a general, holistic perspective, employees understandably get a sense of self satisfaction in a job well done in this interesting and challenging time.”

OPM devoted a significant portion of the 2020 viewpoint survey to the working conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the peak of the pandemic, 59% of respondents reported that they worked completely remotely, and while 48% of employees reported greatly or somewhat increased work demands due to COVID-19, they reported only an 8% drop in their agencies' ability to meet customers’ needs, from 94% prior to the pandemic to 86% during the pandemic.

Wells said that the rapid deployment of telework could help explain the improvement in employee engagement. Those who said they worked at least three days per week remotely had an employee engagement index of 76.0, while those who only teleworked one or two days per week had a 74.8 engagement score, and employees ineligible for telework only reported a 62.5 engagement index.

“There’s a strong link between telework participation and engagement scores in the research,” she said. “So you’d expect to see teleworkers with higher employee engagement scores than those who aren’t, and it’s the same with satisfaction and health and safety . . . There’s a wealth of research over the last decades that show all kinds of positive effects gained through telework, and I know these discussions are being had across agencies to see how we can capture this boon to performance through engaging more telework.”

The survey also showed widespread improvements in how federal employees perceived both immediate supervisors and agency leadership, something Wells said could be traced back to agencies’ response to the pandemic.

“Leaders and supervisors did some really smart things this year,” she said. “[Many] employees’ responsibilities increased during COVID, and telework was hugely important as well as other workplace flexibilities. A lot of supervisors and leaders were seen as willing and creative in helping employees meet their needs. We introduced a new index on health and safety, and employees said they felt very protected by their supervisors, that they took a lot of care and were concerned about employees’ health and safety.”