PeopleImages / iStock

What Do Federal Workers Really Want?

New research sheds light on how to support and retain top talent.

Federal workers are ready for a reset. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, this segment of the U.S.  workforce has been at the forefront of developing and executing the policies and programs that have supported vulnerable Americans during the pandemic. Most rapidly transitioned to remote work in home offices, blurring traditional boundaries between work and home life. Still, the federal workforce adapted, driven by a heightened sense of mission and purpose.

But now, after almost two years of operating in a near-emergency state, the majority of federal workers are feeling the strain. According to a recent study, 68% reported increased stress, while 58% reported “lacking a sense of community,” and 50% reported both increased anxiety and a deteriorating work-life balance since the onset of the pandemic.

Federal executives recognize these challenges. In fact, 79% of federal executives agree that their employees have just faced the largest and fastest human behavioral change in history due to COVID-19. Understandably, roughly one in three federal workers in the past year required more mental health support than usual.

Yet, agreeing on the need for change is easier than making it happen. How exactly should federal executives reset their relationships with their employees? And what can executives do to sustain their workers’ commitment and sense of purpose when the pandemic recedes, yet workplaces still rapidly evolve?

Addressing Workers’ Holistic Needs

A recent survey polled 3,200 C-suite executives and 15,600 workers at organizations around the world—including 180 CXOs and 1,000 workers from the U.S. government—for insights on how to better meet workers’ fundamental human needs. Findings suggest that employers can maximize their workforce potential by addressing these six needs their workers have: physical, financial, emotional, purposeful, employable, and relational. In fact, doing so will reap dividends in the form of higher retention rates and more productive workers.

On average, the research suggests approximately 64% of people’s ability to maximize their skills and strengths at work is influenced by whether they feel supported in the workplace across these six dimensions. Surprisingly, the research also revealed factors that have traditionally received a great deal of attention—such as workers’ educational background, tenure at an organization, seniority level, industry, and organization size—typically account for less than 9% of people’s ability to maximize their potential at work.

This framework—which we call “Net Better Off”—can help government leaders bridge the gap between the level of support their organizations currently offer and that which their workers increasingly expect. That’s largely because the more employers tend to their workers’ needs, the more those workers trust their employers. Higher levels of trust are, in turn, associated with increased employee loyalty and productivity. Indeed, within organizations where leaders are helping their employees become Net Better Off, 97% of workers said they trusted their employer. But at organizations that struggle to make their employees Net Better Off, only 52% of workers said they trust their organization.

How do you apply the Net Better Off framework within your agency? To begin, you need to take stock of where you excel and where you fall short in supporting your workers in the Net Better Off framework. Second, you should identify the actions that can accelerate your organization’s efforts to better provide for your employees’ holistic well-being. But what are those actions?

Practices that Deliver Results

We’ve identified five proven “sweet spot” practices that can help you more effectively support and address workers’ diverse needs. They are: 1) enable continuous learning; 2) listen to front-line workers; 3) use technology to enable flexible work; 4) champion workers’ holistic well-being; and 5) set and share people metrics.

For example, by enabling continuous learning, you can provide your employees with a greater sense of accomplishment and control over their careers—while also fulfilling your organization’s own future skill requirements. Moreover, our research shows that 95% of workers who experience this practice would recommend their employer to other companies compared to 39% who don’t experience this practice.

Together, these actions have been shown to closely correlate with positive workforce behavior, and they’re sustainable because they benefit both employees and employers. The challenge? Few organizations deploy these practices effectively. But those that do are poised to be the employers of choice in years to come.

Clearly, the pandemic presented major challenges for the U.S. workforce. Organizations, including the U.S. government, need to rethink how to engage their employees, ensuring that people are truly better off. As private-sector companies expand the range of support offered to employees, federal employers must do the same, not only to remain competitive, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Britaini Carroll leads the Human Capital Management practice at Accenture Federal Services.