After favorable Best Places to Work results, VA pushes further workforce improvements

VA was the only large agency to increase its employee satisfaction score in 2021, but VA senior leader Gina Grosso said workforce improvements don’t end there...

Although the Department of Veterans Affairs was the only large agency to increase in its employee engagement and satisfaction score between 2020 and 2021 in the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group’s annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, agency leaders still have a lot on their plate to continue boosting the score, and the workforce overall, in the coming years.

For 2021, VA posted a slight satisfaction score increase of 0.2 points — now up to a score of 70.2 out of 100, with a gradually increasing trend over the last several years. The agency also moved from eighth to fifth place overall in the large agency rankings. Gina Grosso, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, and operations, security and preparedness, said the improvements don’t end there.

“I certainly don’t think 70 is really the goal we want. But we continue to strive to learn from our employees,” Grosso said in an interview with Federal News Network.

From the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

The COVID-19 pandemic, in part, shaped the Best Places to Work results for the VA, and how the agency dealt with changing priorities for its workforce overall, Grosso added.

“In some ways, when you have those kinds of crises, you get to do things that you don’t normally do. To take care of our veterans, we had to take care of the workforce. And to take care of the workforce, we just had to do things differently,” she said.

To make workforce improvements, for example, the agency created an employee engagement council, which is collaborating with VA leaders and brainstorming ways to better support employee satisfaction. Some of the council’s initiatives so far included adding whole-health training to its onboarding program and creating relaxation rooms for medical center staff.

“We’re really trying to take a holistic view of wellness for our workforce,” Grosso said. “As we start thinking about the future of work, we’d love to get to a workplace where we can meet the needs of every employee on their own terms.”

Along with the increasing workforce satisfaction score, a major piece of legislation, which President Joe Biden signed on Aug. 10, also gave VA more flexibilities to help staff up its health care workforce. The Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (Honoring Our PACT) Act gives the agency resources to treat approximately 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during military service.

Some of the bill’s provisions include expanding recruitment and retention bonuses for VA employees, and creating an expedited hiring authority for college graduates into competitive service jobs. The PACT Act also approved 31 leases for VA health care facilities and provided funding to support employment at rural VA facilities.

“The health care market is incredibly competitive, and obviously, we’re going to need to hire more healthcare people,” Grosso said. “In the health care arena in particular, we will never be able to pay what the private sector pays, but we have to get close to being competitive. And so that will definitely help there. It will help us retain people as well.”

The PACT Act also emphasized efforts to revitalize the agency’s human resources workforce. The legislation called on VA to work with the Office of Personnel Management to establish qualifications and standardized performance metrics for its HR employees. Additionally, the agency now has a one-year deadline to submit a plan to Congress on how to best recruit and retain HR employees.

“Interestingly, of our most critical skills, one of them actually is HR,” Grosso said. “There’s quite a bit of bureaucracy, honestly, in the federal government [when] hiring civilians, and [Congress] took some of that bureaucracy away. That’s why they want us to measure, to make sure we’ve got good HR people coming in, and that they’re trained on these new policies. It’s a recognition that if we’re going to hire significantly more people, the HR people are the people you need first.”

Grosso said that cooperation, both within VA and externally with OPM, will be crucial to putting together those HR standards in the coming months.

“We’re very collaborative. All of us are working together to create the qualification standards. We’re happy to partner with OPM, too. They’ve been a great partner with us, so that we have the right standard, so we hire the right people, so that we can take care of the veterans that we serve,” Grosso said.

“It’s the people that take care of the veterans,” Grosso added. “From a hiring perspective, and from a pay perspective, I think [the PACT Act] helped employees see how important they were to the mission.”

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