The 2013 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, set for release on December 18, will provide managers with important insights into the satisfaction and commitment levels of their employees, two ingredients that are essential for a high performing workforce.

These are tough times for federal employees – from the three-year pay freeze and increased pension costs to the across-the-board budget cuts and the 16-day government shutdown – and as a result morale is low throughout government.

The current climate makes it doubly important for managers to commit to improving the workplace environment and, as much as humanly possible, to compensate for all of the uncontrollable outside factors. This is where the “Best Places to Work” data fits in, painting a picture of agency strengths and weaknesses, identifying signs of trouble and discontentment, and highlighting where additional effort is needed to better connect with and engage the workforce.

The rankings are produced by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and by Deloitte. They're based on a government-wide survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and additional survey data from eight other agencies, plus the intelligence community. Besides the government-wide and individual agency satisfaction scores, the latest “Best Places to Work” report will offer agency-level data on employee opinions for 10 workplace issues ranging from their perceptions of senior leaders and supervisors to work-life balance.

There are many steps you can take to improve employee satisfaction, including finding ways to foster better communications and instituting specific changes in workforce practices, but it all starts with understanding what is happening at your agency and then formulating a plan of action. Here are some tips on how to begin:

Assess your current situation: Use the data to identify trends and to target and prioritize areas where change is needed. Think about significant events that might have affected employee attitudes, such as furloughs. Compare your agency’s overall score with similar organizations to assess your strengths and weaknesses and see if their scores are going up while yours are going down, or vice versa. On the departmental level, evaluate subcomponents to identify the biggest movers in your agency, both those showing improvement and those that have slipped.

Conduct additional research: After analyzing the data, consider supplementing it with additional research to get a better sense of how your employees feel about particular issues and the workplace climate. This might entail more detailed analysis, a follow-up survey or use of focus groups and program evaluations to getter a clearer sense of what is taking place.

Talk to your employees: Managers at every level should discuss the survey results with employees to sharpen their understanding of the story behind the numbers. Ask employees for feedback at staff meetings, through one-on-one discussions or via emails about how the organization can improve. Even top-ranked agencies can learn how to become an even better place to work.

Develop a plan: Choose a strategy for change, focusing on a few areas where you can have fast impact while laying the groundwork for longer term initiatives. Areas of significant need may not always be the lowest scoring areas, so it’s important to focus on those that are aligned and integrated with your agency’s mission. Make sure you receive top leadership buy-in, appoint a group of employee champions to help facilitate the effort, and communicate your intentions and goals at all levels of the organization. As your progress, don't forget to solicit employee feedback, let employees know about progress and make adjustments as needed. 

To help federal mangers better understand and analyze their “Best Places to Work” rankings and data, the Partnership for Public Service offers webinars and one-hour leadership briefings. For more information, please visit www.bestplacestowork.org/BPTW/agencies/.

Federal managers, how are you preparing for the release of Wednesday’s “Best Places to Work” rankings? Please share your ideas in the comment section below, or 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:

How to make your agency a better place to work

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