After 15 years of Best Places to Work, data findings consistently point to engagement needs

For 15 years now, federal employees have been asked to rate their agencies to show managers — and Congress — where people like to work most. And in that time, effective leadership, matching skills to missions and pay were usually the top concerns.

But as nearly a quarter of American workers contemplate leaving their jobs this year and pandemic-induced remote work is expected to stick around even after the virus, work-life balance is growing in importance for federal employees. That, paired with a long-standing challenge to recruit younger workers and a renewed emphasis on creating more diverse and inclusive workspaces, means agencies may want to take some clichéd yet time-tested data findings to heart.

In an analysis of 15 years of Best Places to Work agency scores, researchers from the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group made what they called a business case for strong employee engagement. Researchers used a machine learning model to predict workforce attrition rate, based on employee engagement scores and found a decrease in agency attrition as engagement scores rose.

“It’s fairly intuitive. However, backing that up with a quantitative model really gives leaders the ammunition they need to dedicate resources to employee engagement,” Michelle Amante, vice president of federal workforce programs at the Partnership, said in a webcast Tuesday.

Best Places to Work scores come from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, along with responses from agencies that do not participate in the FEVS but conduct similar surveys with comparable methodologies — such as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Agency highlights

Amante said that for new hires, onboarding is crucial and extends beyond the first-day-of-work paperwork from human resources.

“I’m not talking about orientation, I’m not talking about giving them their badge and their computer, I’m talking about a process where you’re integrating them into the culture, you’re helping them build a professional network, you’re giving them a mentor, younger people really want to see their career path, they want to, they want to be able to envision that and when you give them a network and help them connect them with others in the agency, that really helps them envision that path forward,” she said.

She cited the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which in 2020 ranked 111 out of 411 agency subcomponents and had an engagement score of 76.8 out of 100 — as having a robust internship program which left nearly 90% of interns interested in working for the agency by the end of it.

NOAA also targets external professional networks affinity groups to reach underserved communities, such as the Black Engineers of the Year conference. Historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and community colleges are also established routes for crafting a diverse applicant pool, Amante said.

Brooke Bollyky, BCG managing director and partner, said although the status quo of everyone working remotely is not sustainable, neither is keeping employees in the office full-time. Flexibility in the work schedule helped boost engagement last year, and as agencies release their return-to-work plans, it will be interesting to see the balance, she said.

She clarified that “engagement” is not the same as “happiness,” which is harder to quantify and allocate resources. Instead, engagement is to do with employee performance and quality toward an agency’s mission.

To see if a relationship existed between engagement and performance, researchers used VA as an example. Analyzing three years of data from 150 VA medical centers revealed that increases in engagement scores mirrored increases in patient satisfaction and faster call center times.

Other standout agencies from the report included the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation, which has a direct hire program available for recent graduates after completing an 11-week project, thus bypassing the competitive process, as well as monthly “Technical Tuesdays” events for in-house experts to showcase their work. The Government Accountability Office also has a “culture of collaboration” between senior executives and supervisors, the report said.

Senior leaders need engagement, too

But while most of the attention around employee engagement and retention gets paid to newer hires, Amante and Bollyky pointed out that senior leadership needs cultivation as well.

Two-way communication, early investment in their development and holding leaders accountable for engagement were top recommendations from the report. Jamey McNamara, chief human capital officer and director of the Office of Human Resources at the Securities and Exchange Commission, was quoted espousing the value of supervisory training as people move up the ladder, since many of the SEC’s supervisors were hired for their technical background rather than their abilities as a supervisor or manager.

“How can you be asking them to support the engagement of their direct reports and the agency at large, if they’re not feeling it?” Bollyky said. “People know when it’s inauthentic, and they know when you’re just going through the motions, and you’re not actually feeling it yourself.”
One of the biggest paint points for federal managers that affects overall employee satisfaction is poor performers — specifically removing or disciplining them. Bollyky acknowledged this is tricky but that the best thing to do is minimize poor performers’ impact on others as much as possible. She said making sure the work not being done is offset in a balanced way, and increasing rewards — monetary and otherwise — or recognition for higher performers are some ways to do this.

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