An open letter to OPM and federal HR leaders

Dear federal HR leaders and policymakers,

If the government wants to be a competitive employer in the 21st century, leaders must stop ignoring the importance of human connection and relationships at work. If you want to attract and keep the best workforce, you must become what you aspire to be: a great place to work. Intentions don’t travel as well as actions.

Since at least 1955, the United States federal government has known that the...

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Dear federal HR leaders and policymakers,

If the government wants to be a competitive employer in the 21st century, leaders must stop ignoring the importance of human connection and relationships at work. If you want to attract and keep the best workforce, you must become what you aspire to be: a great place to work. Intentions don’t travel as well as actions.

Since at least 1955, the United States federal government has known that the best way to motivate employees to do their best work is to treat them like “humans” instead of simply like workers. By only acknowledging an employee’s sense of purpose or attachment to their organization, you ignore the most essential component of employee engagement: the employee’s relationships with the people they work with, for and around.

Measuring engagement

Federal employee engagement is overwhelmingly measured by the lengthy annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which is wholly inadequate. While it provides a snapshot of a portion of employee attitudes, it’s not an accurate representation of employee engagement throughout the year. Experts advise on shorter, local, more frequent surveys to better gauge the culture and engagement of the workforce.

The FEVS measures “three components of employee engagement:” employee feelings and beliefs about their senior leaders, their supervisors, and their workplaces/jobs. Most questions ask about job satisfaction or whether supervisors and organizations are doing the bare minimum required by federal laws and regulations.

There are no questions that measure camaraderie, work environment, trusting coworkers, feeling empowered, feeling fulfilled, team building, feeling like part of the team, or feeling like their supervisor genuinely cares about their whole selves. People want to feel included, challenged, and appreciated. Those should be your engagement measures.

The government reports similar engagement and satisfaction scores of around 70% in their annual FEVS, yet these figures contradict my own personal experience. An in-depth review of published reports on employee engagement in the federal government reveals more misleading data that’s inconsistent with reality.

The actual number of actively engaged employees hovers around 40%. The other 60% are either neutral/mixed, unknown, or actively disengaged. Additionally, the survey is optional, so on average, 45% of the workforce participates. The other 55% opts out, citing lack of trust, faith in leaders and confidentiality. Considering the rates of participation, the actual engagement rate falls even further to around 15%.

Further, the variations in responses and response rates between supervisors and subordinates show large, widespread disconnect amongst them. Historically, government leaders hold much higher perspectives of their workplaces than their employees and have significantly higher rates of participation in viewpoint surveys. Around 70% of FEVS respondents are non-supervisory, but only 12% of the total non-supervisory workforce participates. Conversely, 30% of respondents are leaders, managers or supervisors, yet nearly 90% of their total workforce participates.

Given the data inconsistencies, lack of accurate engagement measures, and disconnected leadership, it’s no wonder human capital management is on the GAO’s High Risk List. How can you fix a problem you don’t think you have?

The new quarterly federal pulse survey is a perfect example of why the government struggles with meaningful change and reform. Quarterly is better than annual, but the questions still don’t accurately measure engagement and only 20% participates. Leaders at all levels should do bi/weekly mini surveys that ask their employees if they feel challenged, appreciated, and included. Once you have an honest picture, you can start improving engagement.

We have a rare opportunity to make substantial changes to federal employee engagement. If OPM wants to build an engaged workforce from a seasoned civil service with deeply ingrained workplace cultural beliefs and attitudes, we need a specialized federal employee engagement workforce to guide leaders and drive cultural change.

Start with HR

The federal HR community is the most complex organizational support function and are the purported experts on all things ‘employees’. For all intents and purposes, the HR community should be the pillar of employee engagement. Yet, for years the government has struggled to recruit and retain highly qualified HR practitioners.

Unexpected work is common, with priorities and deadlines frequently shifting mid project. Processes and IT systems are woefully inadequate. New systems are often no better than the old so they’re either abandoned or adapted with local workarounds that create duplicate data, inaccurate metrics, and inconsistent reports. Other times, IT systems that could greatly improve work performance are ignored due to staff or leadership ignorance or resistance.

Substandard recordkeeping, lack of knowledge management, and general lack of expertise in the HR workforce add confusion to chaos, dramatically increasing delays and mistakes that have far-reaching, dramatic effects.

High turnover rates among both HR staff and supervisors impede development, rapport, and morale, reducing camaraderie, continuity, and trust.

I’ve been a remote HR Specialist in my organization for a year. In my section, we all work from home, have a clear path to promotion, abundant training opportunities, challenging work, and as much recognition as any other HR office. We have the tools we need, the autonomy to work how we want, and we know how our jobs affect the mission. We cooperate and there are no issues between the staff and supervisor. Using FEVS measurements, things look pretty good.

Except, since I started, four people have been hired, including me, and the other three have already quit. I’ve never seen my supervisor or any of my coworkers and I know little more about them than their veteran status and the state where they live. We cooperate because we’re professionals, but we aren’t a team. As it turns out, that matters.

In my organization, only 18% of HR staff were actively engaged in their jobs according to the 2021 annual FEVS, and 39% of HR staff were actively disengaged. We are essentially the antithesis to everything we should represent. If the employee experts can’t manage our own employees, why would our customers trust our advice? Would you listen to a bankrupt financial advisor?

If our mission is to take care of employees, why don’t we start with ourselves?? With the speed of current modernization efforts, the shift from reactive to proactive HR support is still unforeseen but will undoubtedly get harder before it gets easier. Our success depends on our engagement.

Building engagement

Most of us spend more time with our coworkers than our own families, so why shouldn’t we also enjoy ourselves and have a good time building meaningful relationships? What’s the concern? That we will accomplish less if we enjoy our jobs and have fun at work? That implies you don’t trust your employees, an attitude we pick up on, which further damages engagement.

“Mandatory fun” days or office activities that control or limit social exchanges rarely boost engagement. For example, adding trivia game icebreakers to quarterly all hands meetings might be great for those who enjoy trivia, but it negates our ability to genuinely connect with one another. Balancing formal and informal communication creates space for people to connect on their own terms and build their relationships organically.

Engagement activities should be varied, well known, and reflective of the employees. Leaders should solicit feedback constantly and take swift action on employee ideas and suggestions. The sooner federal leaders accept the overwhelming research proving that healthy downtime and fun at work boost productivity, the better they will understand how to strategize and maximize engagement efforts. There are already myriad tools and opportunities at our disposal to promote engagement through informal socialization.

Microsoft Teams is devastatingly underutilized in the civil service, primarily as a chat, call, and meeting service. Teams is a fully integrated collaboration tool where users can plan, organize and track projects, tasks, and actions, route requests, and track metrics; exchange and store information and files through collaborative wikis, whiteboards, notes, libraries, and group calendars; empower and engage employees through polls, coworker recognition, incentives and gamification, social channels, and suggestion boxes.

Microsoft is constantly developing new features, it’s easy to personalize, and training is abundant. When used to its potential, Teams could drastically improve knowledge management, information sharing, records management, communication, collaboration, and engagement. While many of the apps and add-ons aren’t available to government users (yet) and some might require a rethinking of the government’s approach to employee awards, appraisals, and recognition, the possibilities available are more than sufficient for a post-pandemic hybrid, dispersed workforce to engage and collaborate.

I think that leaders genuinely want to boost engagement but just don’t have the time or wherewithal to do the work required to produce results. Establishing a specialized community of practice with employee engagement expertise would fill the current gap between concept and execution. HR should be that community. If we had engagement sections in every HR office, specialists could consult with supervisors to help them plan and execute bespoke engagement efforts. HR is the logical home. Plus, we need it the most and our engagement is fundamental to the entire government.

The biggest change we face is changing people’s minds. That starts with you, our leaders. There’s no better time than the present.

Kelly Williamson is an HR specialist for the Veterans Health Administration.

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