How to make your agency a better place to work

(istock photo)

(istock photo)

How can federal agencies improve employee satisfaction and commitment? Are there any secrets to success?

These questions should be top of mind for agency leaders and managers as they begin to receive extensive data from the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, a government-wide survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that provides critical information regarding how employees feel about their jobs, leaders and other aspects of the workplace.

These data enable agency leadership to better understand where their organizations are thriving and where improvement is needed. It's a great starting point for coming up with plans to respond to employee concerns and any negative trends -- an imperative during normal times and particularly important in the current climate of pay freezes, furloughs, hiring slowdowns and budget cuts.

Each year, Deloitte and my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, use the employee survey data to produce the "Best Places to Work in the Federal Governmentrankings, which add perspective by providing a comprehensive portrait of employee satisfaction and commitment across the government and at individual agencies and their subcomponents.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the rankings, we profiled six agencies to see how they used the Best Places to Work analysis and employee survey data to create better work environments. Two of these agencies, NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), have been consistent top performers in the rankings. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the State Department, the U.S. Mint and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) made significant improvements very quickly or sustained improvement over a number of years.

By following the examples of these successful organizations, agencies can bring about positive change in employee satisfaction and commitment -- and ultimately performance.

Based on our review, agency leaders should consider the following strategies:

Own the change: Leaders at agencies with high employee satisfaction levels have held themselves and their executives accountable for improving the work environment. The USPTO, DOT and the NRC, for example, created incentives for senior leaders by incorporating employee survey targets or goals into their executive performance plans. In addition, successful leaders have kept employee satisfaction and commitment at the top of people’s minds. During meetings with staff and the senior team, leaders have prioritized discussions about employee survey results, action planning and workplace improvements.

Partner with unions: The agencies that have made significant strides in employee satisfaction have often done so in partnership with employee unions. Effective working relationships with unions can help agency leaders identify and understand employee challenges more fully, as well as develop solutions together. While not a substitute for collective bargaining, agencies have found that actively soliciting the views of frontline employees through their representatives, taking these views seriously, instituting changes when possible and sharing credit with the union have gone a long way toward solving problems and increasing employee satisfaction.

Go for quick wins: Another strategy involves designing and executing short-term activities to act on employee feedback that can contribute to a longer-term culture change. After solving a workplace problem, successful agency leaders have communicated the facts to employees, instituted the changes and asked for responses. When employees see tangible results, it helps to build trust, future participation and a fulfilling work environment.

Build connections through communication: Successful agencies have taken steps to keep employees informed about the organization's challenges and decisions. Many agencies have improved transparency and understanding by addressing employee concerns during town hall meetings, video conferences or brown bag sessions with senior leaders, and through online question boxes and workplace suggestion sites. NASA hosted a virtual executive summit connecting the administrator with employees through a video conference, and shared organizational news and answered employee questions. The State Department and a number of other agencies regularly distribute electronic newsletters with information about upcoming events, special meetings and organizational changes.

Invest in employees: Leadership development programs bolster employee motivation, improve job satisfaction and have been a trait of successful agencies. The USPTO develops and delivers training for managers to help them learn about career advancement opportunities, and it also provides patent examiners with training on new technologies. The DOT provides training for supervisors on effective leadership, employee engagement and ethics, while the State Department offers options ranging from leadership and skill training to language classes.

What successful strategies has your agency used to improve your workplace? What tips do you have for increasing employee satisfaction and commitment? Please share your ideas in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Also on On Leadership

Larry Summers's Fed withdrawal doesn't exactly benefit Janet Yellen