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Federal Employees Are Growing Less Engaged and Less Satisfied With Their Jobs

Response rates for the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey also fell 10 points from 2020, amid an abbreviated fall survey period due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal employees reported decreases in both their engagement and job satisfaction when they responded to the government’s annual survey of workplace attitudes, although officials warned that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to color those results.

The Office of Personnel Management on Thursday announced the results of the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which for the second year in a row was conducted in an unusual fall solicitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the federal government, employee engagement fell by 1 point from 72 out of 100 in 2020 to 71 last year, while the global satisfaction index, which seeks to measure federal employee morale, fell 5 points from 69 in 2020 to 64 last fall.

Additionally, response rates across federal agencies fell precipitously to 34%, down 10 percentage points from 2020. At least part of this drop can be attributed to a second straight year of OPM shifting when and how the survey was administered: after delaying the survey’s deployment from its traditional spring rollout to September in 2020, it was not sent out until November 2021 and OPM only solicited responses for five weeks, instead of the traditional six.

In a letter accompanying the survey results’ release, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja applauded the federal workforce’s continued “resilience” amid the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, noting decreases in engagement and morale mirror trends seen in the private sector. And she cautioned observers not to draw sweeping conclusions due to the pandemic’s impact on the survey itself.

“Due to the pandemic, survey administration in 2021 differed from 2020 in some substantial ways, making year-to-year figures less comparable,” she wrote. “For example, the 2021 OPM FEVS was in the field in November and December of 2021, rather than the more customary spring administration period and the total fielding time was reduced from six weeks to five to avoid holiday period conflicts.”

In the report, OPM posited that some of the declines in engagement and satisfaction might be due to the fact that agencies were preparing, or had already begun, efforts to move federal workers back to traditional work sites.

“While the 2020 OPM FEVS scores for employee engagement and global satisfaction were higher than the current 2021 scores, it’s likely that the current scores are reflective of several unique factors,” the report stated. “First, the opportunities for telework [have] declined since the peak of the pandemic. Telework is positively related to higher scores on employee engagement and global satisfaction and declines in telework could be linked to a decline in these scores . . . Finally, the pandemic was continuing into a second year, beyond what was initially anticipated. The pandemic challenges were taking a toll on all aspects of everyone’s life.”

Additionally, the survey’s deployment amidst agencies’ prepping their reentry plans, while exploring how to implement workplace flexibilities and a hybrid work environment on a more permanent basis, means the federal workforce was in a period of transition, which can affect scores.

“These factors are complicated by large-scale changes in the workplace context with many agency leaders exploring and implementing hybrid working models,” OPM wrote. “Managers and supervisors are learning to manage employees working in alternate and possibly changing locations. Employees are facing a change in how many may have worked, with some transitioning from maximum telework to a mix of telework and onsite work . . . Change can be hard and stressful, and a hallmark of 2021 has been frequent and ongoing change.”

Another possible hindrance to the government’s global satisfaction index is much simpler to measure: compensation. In 2021, federal employees received only a 1% across-the-board pay increase, with no improvement to locality pay, all amid skyrocketing inflation. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey measured a six-point drop in pay satisfaction last year, falling from 67 in 2020 to 61 in 2021.

OPM found that agencies continued to get high marks on most questions directly related to the pandemic, with three quarters of the federal workforce reporting that senior leaders were committed to employees’ health and safety, and 84% of feds’ immediate supervisors. But one concern was the fact that only 62% of feds said that senior leaders provided effective communication about reentry plans.