Engaging employees at federal agencies
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Engaging employees at federal agencies

July 14, 2022
Max Stier, Danny Werfel

New research by the Partnership for Public Service and BCG shows that many federal agencies are struggling to improve employee engagement, with leaders and the workforce facing an array of challenges that include transitioning to new ways of working due the fallout from COVID-19 pandemic.

These difficulties are evident from the results of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings and accompanying data, with the government-wide employee engagement and satisfaction score for 2021 standing a at 64.5 out of 100, a 4.5 percentage point drop from 2020. On an absolute basis, this score is nearly 15 points behind that of the private sector, though the private sector is experiencing similar challenges as employers across the country navigate an uncertain work environment.

While the government-wide decline represents a clear warning sign, the Best Places to Work rankings also demonstrate that a number of agencies can and already benefit substantially from concerted employee engagement programs, and that leadership can make a huge difference.

It is well-documented that investing in employee engagement drives higher productivity, lowers turnover and results in less absenteeism. But leaders across the public and private sectors are in uncharted territory when it comes to operating in the new normal of the pandemic. What agencies and their leaders do today will impact how current and potential employees perceive the future of their careers within the federal government. The upshot: people practices, talent retention, recruitment and effective communication planning are more critical than ever.

The Best Places to Work data and rankings point to several government-wide themes that can help agencies plan for improved engagement and track their progress as they implement tailored engagement agendas. Here are four themes that merit attention:

Keep employees informed about future workplace plans. Federal employees are largely positive about how agency leaders and supervisors handled concerns regarding their well-being, posting a score of 85.2 out of 100 in a category of COVID-19-related questions on flexible work schedules, expanded leave policies, vaccine protocols and a safe workplace. But a separate COVID-19 category dealing with the possible long-term return to the physical office stood at just 63.0 across agencies, demonstrating an opportunity for improved communications about future workplace strategies. 

Provide continued support for supervisors and increase accountability for senior leaders to improve. Supervisors drew a rating of 79.8 out of 100 when judged on their leadership. It will be critical to keep investing in these frontline managers, particularly through skill building and training them to lead teams in varied work settings. Senior leaders, by contrast, posted a score of just 56.1 out of 100 on their leadership, a signal that agencies’ engagement strategies need to start at the top. Senior leaders are instrumental in ensuring agencies are well-run and that employee needs are met. 

Employees in the 30-39 age range need attention. Government employees aged 30 to 39 have the lowest engagement and satisfaction scores among all age groups. Retaining and developing this cohort is critical to building long-term talent pipelines. One strategy is innovating on career pathing and career development for this group, including offering more flexibility around the experiences needed to advance through the ranks and by making use of mobility and job rotations among teams.

Employees are skeptical the survey results will be used to improve the work environment. Agencies scored just 40.1 out of 100 on the question of whether “the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work”―the lowest-scoring survey response overall. To help address this challenge, agencies can experiment with cascaded action planning and communication (tools available here) as well as quarterly engagement pulse checks to get leading indicators of engagement trends. Today, many digital feedback tools are available to facilitate capturing the voices of the government’s diverse mix of desk-based, deskless, onsite and remote workers.

Some agencies already have had success engaging their employees in the future of work and can share best practices and stories of what’s worked. For example, the Department of Commerce, ranked third among large agencies, uses employee resource groups and engagement teams to propose changes based on employee needs. The National Science Foundation, ranked second for midsize agencies, mapped the employee journey and aims to adapt recruitment, onboarding and norms along that journey to suit emerging hybrid work scenarios.

Overall, the 2021 Best Places to Work results point to opportunities to provide clarity regarding the future of work plans. They also show the need to double down on assisting those in the 30 to 39 age range, to listen to employees and to engage in activities that improve workplace engagement and satisfaction. Agencies that fully commit to and deliver on such activities will have an advantage in bringing in and retaining the best talent, and ultimately will become more effective in accomplishing their missions.

Best-in-class private sector organizations understand that increased employee engagement leads to better performance and outcomes. Federal leaders need to meet or exceed the private sector standard by emphasizing employee engagement and the workplace culture.

Danny Werfel headshot
Danny Werfel is a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group in the Washington, D.C. office and serves as the global leader of the Public Sector Practice.

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