Tips from federal agencies with happy employees

January 2
Expedition 38 crew member Rick Mastracchio (L) checks out the spacesuit that he will wear during a spacewalk with crew member Mike Hopkins, in the Quest airlock in the International Space Station in this undated image taken from video from NASA TV. Mastracchio and fellow astronaut Mike Hopkins will conduct a series of spacewalks beginning Saturday to replace an ammonia pump that is part of the station's coolant system. This will be Hopkins' first spacewalk, while Mastracchio has had six previous ones on STS-118 and STS-131. REUTERS/NASA TV/Handout (OUTER SPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Our newly released 2013 ‘Best Places to Work in the Federal Government’ rankings show a continued decline government-wide in employee satisfaction and commitment. This reflects a number of factors, most certainly including the three-year pay freeze, unpaid furloughs, increased worker pension costs, budget cuts and hiring slowdowns.

Yet even in these trying times with so many outside forces affecting worker morale, some agencies defied the trend and improved by placing an emphasis on engaging employees, improving communication, soliciting and acting on worker feedback, and changing the day-to-day work environment.

The experiences of these successful agencies offer important lessons for government leaders and prove that if you pay close attention to enhancing employee satisfaction and commitment, you can have a positive impact on the workforce and go a long way toward building a high-performing organization.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), for example, is ranked as the No. 1 agency subcomponent out of 300, having steadily risen from 172 out of 222 in 2007.

How did the USPTO do it? In the past year, the agency continued to make progress on key initiatives that included building productive relationships with employee unions that once were quite hostile, improving the patent examination process to speed the workflow, and reducing the large backlog of patent applications.

The organization also continued to promote a robust telework program, enhanced the training opportunities for employees and managers, better emphasized the importance for management to communicate with employees and create avenues for feedback. In this regard, the USPTO launched a new Web-based crowdsourcing pilot project, in which employees can contribute suggestions and have a dialogue around innovations at the agency.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) maintained its position as the top large agency in the 2013 rankings, improving its employee satisfaction and commitment score by focusing on three key priority areas: connecting people to each other and the mission; building model supervisors; and recognizing and rewarding innovative performance.

NASA recently implemented a reverse mentoring program where junior employees mentor more senior staff on a particular topic area. For example, one employee mentored a deputy center director on how to effectively use social media. This program brings a variety of benefits, such as improved networking and personal connections among staff, and increased exposure to new fields and topics. NASA also has shifted the weighting on all senior executive service performance plans to emphasize management accomplishments such as “leading people, building coalitions, and diversity and inclusion,” as opposed to emphasizing more technical or scientific accomplishments.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also made positive strides, winning the ‘Best Places to Work’ most improved mid-size agency award in 2013, and moving from 10th out of 22 agencies to 7th out of 23 in the rankings.

After studying the federal survey used to compile the ‘Best Places to Work’ rankings, the FCC placed added emphasis on finding ways for management to better communicate with its more than 1,700 employees. The stepped-up communications included emails from the chairman and town hall meetings in various bureaus to highlight what the commission is doing and the valuable role played by employees. During performance reviews, managers also have talked about the importance of the mission and their workers’ contribution.

The Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) is another good example, having jumped in the rankings from 202nd of 231 subcomponents in 2009 to 88th out of 300 today.

The agency created 16 committees with employee volunteers, each championed by a designated top executive, to address a range of topics. The result has been a revision of the agency telework policy; the creation of a career paths Webpage depicting career tracks for auditors; a revamped on-boarding process; a recruiting Facebook page; the launch of a developmental assignment program; the improvement of mentoring and coaching programs; renewed emphasis on non-monetary awards;  and revised leadership training and training processes.

Underlying the effort was a decision to use the ‘Best Places to Work’ rankings and the federal employee survey data on which the rankings are based to pinpoint and address problem areas. With the leadership fully committed, executives recently spent a full day devoted to regional analysis of survey results, reviewing action plans and assessing how they can continue to make positive changes. The effort has paid off.

The leaders of these agencies have paid close attention to what employees are saying, and then responded by making changes to address some of the top concerns and problems. Leaders across government should take note, and begin to take action.

If you know of any workplace initiatives that are helping motivate employees, please share your stories 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.

Read also:

The unhappy federal worker

Morale plummets to 10-year low in government Best Places to Work list

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