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Federal employee satisfaction ticked up in 2020 despite increased workload due to pandemic, government survey finds

The Office of Personnel Management surveys employees across the federal government. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

Nearly half of federal employees said the coronavirus pandemic increased their work demands last year, yet they overall felt more engaged with their jobs and are more satisfied than in previous years, according to government survey results released Monday.

Amid a widespread move to telework, 48 percent of the more than 600,000 federal workers who responded the survey last fall said their work demands increased somewhat or greatly because of the pandemic. And nearly a quarter termed the pandemic very or extremely disruptive to their work, while half said it was somewhat or slightly disruptive.

But at the same time, an “employee engagement” index that is commonly — though not officially — cited as a measure of morale rose from a score of 68 in 2019 to 72 last year. The index assesses how federal employees view senior leaders, their immediate supervisors and their overall work experience. A measure of overall satisfaction with the job, the organization and pay also rose from 65 to 69.

The increases “may seem a little incongruent in the context of the time. After all, we were in a pandemic,” said Kimberly J. Wells, the Office of Personnel Management’s survey and analysis group manager.

But she noted that the results pointed to an increasing sense of accomplishment felt by many federal employees amid the public health crisis.

“One of the things that the federal workforce really wants to do is to make sure that we’re contributing in a meaningful way to society. I do think we see some results in the survey that support that perspective,” she said in a conference call with reporters.

The survey also documents for the first time the extent to which telework increased among those in the 2.1 million-employee executive-branch workforce whose jobs do not require them to be physically on-site.

The positive effects of a pandemic-induced shift to working from home — after some agencies cut back telework during the Trump administration — are likely to guide the Biden administration as it devises return-to-office plans for federal agencies. The administration is leaning toward allowing thousands of employees to continue teleworking on a permanent basis given the success of the shift during the pandemic, according to officials.

Before the pandemic, only 23 percent of federal employees teleworked at least one day a week. That number more than tripled to 74 percent at the peak of the pandemic last year, falling slightly to 67 percent by the fall. The share of teleworking every day rose from 3 percent before the pandemic to 59 percent at its peak last year.

“It’s really hard to overstate what a sweeping change this is,” Wells said. “Generally, you don’t see such profound change all happening at once.”

The government’s experience is consistent with research showing that satisfaction and employee engagement rise along with rates of telework, she said.

“I know that these are discussions that are being had across agencies about how we capture this real boon to performance that we’re seeing through engaging through more telework,” Wells added.

However, she cautioned against attributing the gains in engagement and satisfaction solely to the increase in telework, which has proved highly popular among many employees. Other indicators commonly tied to such gains also were up, she said, such as employee views of how much management cares about their health and safety.

“I wouldn’t put this all on telework. Far from it, in fact,” Michael Rigas, who served as the acting OPM director for most of 2020, said in an interview. He noted that there was also a gain in satisfaction with the information employees receive from management about what was going on inside their agencies.

“With everyone going to maximum telework, it puts front and center the need to communicate with your employees much more than you would have in a pre-pandemic environment,” he said.

He also noted that engagement and satisfaction scores had risen steadily throughout the Trump administration, despite what employee unions and many in Congress described as a war on civil servants.

Rigas cited as an example the increase in the percentage who said that management takes action against poor performers, which rose from 34 percent in 2019 to 42 percent last year. That came after the Trump administration issued orders rolling back civil service protections and making it easier to fire employees, which took effect in late 2019 after a court lifted an injunction against key parts of the rules.

“That has to do with people working hard and wanting to see their colleagues are also working hard,” Rigas said.

President Biden revoked the orders as one of his first actions in office.

“What OPM has found is that poor performance often reveals a failure to properly engage the employee,” said OPM spokeswoman Shelby Wagenseller. Because of privacy rules, employees don’t necessarily know whether actions are being taken against underperforming co-workers, she added.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.