Workforce planning and management have never been strong suits for federal agencies. Yet in the post-pandemic era, managing workforce dynamics have become critically important. To their credit, federal human resources managers are jumping in and grappling with the new dynamics, according to workforce consultants at Guidehouse.
Challenges range from “increased resignations and attrition, to labor shortages, to employee burnout,” said Ashley Mattison, Guidehouse partner for defense and security. She noted the burnout issue is sharp for those in the national security sector “who weren’t allowed to take advantage of some of the new work modalities that were put in place in terms of telework and remote work.” Yet it occurs across the board, including for those forced into telework.
The result? “We find our clients coming to us to understand how to build culture in a virtual or hybrid modality,” Mattison said, “how to improve recruitment and hiring systems to address their talent shortages, how to rescale and upskill the workforce they do have.”
Leigh Sheldon is a Guidehouse partner for data analytics. She said agencies seeking to improve employee experience while better positioning themselves for workforce planning seek a data-driven approach.
“Clients have always captured data, primarily human resources data,” Sheldon said. “Now there is an exponential growth in demand for that data, how to best govern it and then how to best use it to make strategically data driven decision making.”
These challenges come in the context of pressure from Congress and the White House for more employees to return to the office more often, versus resistance from some employee groups and public employee unions. Agency managers often feel caught in the middle.
After all, Mattison said, remote work and telework have produced benefits for talent acquisition and hiring.
“It does open up new talent pools,” Mattison said, “and the federal government has long had a challenge with bringing in the critical talent, whether younger college graduates or whether those in the cyber and STEM fields.” Plus, she said, many teleworking employees have found better work-life balance and may consider telework opportunities a factor in whether they stay.
Presuming the hybrid modality will continue, Mattison said, agencies face the question of “how to create equity in the work environment for those that never were able to participate in remote work or telework.” Management must find ways to create an employee experience and an environment in which people believe everyone has equal access to opportunity and flexibility.
Measure the problem
A maxim of management states you can’t improve something you can’t measure. Employee engagement and satisfaction measures require an expansion of the data collection agencies typically do. Sheldon said it’s important, though, to craft a data strategy in advance of an expansion in data collection. Once that’s in place, for detailed analysis of an agency’s workforce dynamics, HR will need to collect information from steps throughout the employment lifecycle “from employee opportunities, their promotion candidacy and feedback in terms of exit interviews.”
A data-based approach to the workforce, Mattison added, will also require correlation of data taken over time – from before the pandemic – on measures including engagement and productivity measures. The latter might include more transactional data such as completed procurement actions. She said many clients are interested in understanding the productivity impacts of teleworking and the hybrid workforce.
Sheldon and Mattison recommended a goal of job equity for a workforce with unlike job requirements. For example, consider how the agency can ensure both telework-eligible employees and those who must be on location have the same access to data and applications with similar employee experience.
Serving the workforce you have is one thing. Workforce planning – a perennial challenge for federal agencies – can also improve with a data analytics approach.
“That is probably one of the most prominent trends we see,” Sheldon said, “is preparing for staffing and helping our clients understand not only how to use data to help inform that, but also what roles do you truly need.”
Mattison added, “A lot of our clients are asking us for workload staffing models to understand how many people [the agency will] need to meet current demand in certain functional areas. And how many they will need if demand shifts.” Engagement and satisfaction data can help managers understand retention rates. Coupling that with future retirement and needed skills data can give workforce planners a picture of there their future gaps will lie, Mattison and Sheldon said.
Because technology and needed stills constantly change, Mattison said agencies should consider hiring less on the basis of specific skills and more on learning aptitudes.
“The half life of skills is getting shorter and shorter,” Mattison said.
Hiring managers should complement their workforce planning and employee satisfaction efforts with a data-driven approach to improve how they recruit and hire, Mattison and Sheldon advised. Data on candidates, offer acceptances and demographics can all appear in a dashboard, Mattison said, shared across the agency.
Sheldon said that organizations that put a lot of effort into targeting and recruiting candidates have differing levels of success.
“That is where you can use data to help drive how to change your process,” she said.
Added Mattison, “You know, you always hear people complaining about the federal hiring process. I think the data can also help underscore where the problem really is.”