The secret to managing through shutdowns, relocations and retirements

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The longest government shutdown in U.S. history, office moves and pending retirement waves were no match for some agencies this year and their attempts to keep their employees engaged in 2019.

Though relocations, proposed mergers and other big changes clearly put a dent in employee morale at some agencies this past year, several other organizations held their own during a seemingly tumultuous 2019, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in Federal Government rankings.

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So what’s the secret?

“What we see year-in and year-out is that it’s the leadership; effective leadership is the most important quality that sets the bar for the experience of employees,” Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO, said last week at the organization’s annual “Best Places to Work” breakfast in Washington.

The Peace Corps director and her team sent weekly updates to its furloughed workforce during the last government shutdown, which the agency’s leadership attributes, in part, to its high marks on the Best Places to Work rankings. Nearly two-thirds of the Peace Corps workforce was furloughed during the last government shutdown.

The agency ranked third among 28 small agencies and managed to improve its employee engagement index by about a point in 2019.

“We found out later that other agencies started to copy what we had done,” Michelle Brooks, Peace Corps chief of staff, said in an interview. “We made a real effort to communicate to people where we were with things. We got tremendous feedback during that time, and that also played into why we received such high marks this year.”

The Peace Corps also held a town hall meeting with employees after the shutdown ended, which Brooks said gave the workforce a chance to talk with each other about their experiences while furloughed.

The Peace Corps experienced more change and uncertainty over the past year when it moved its headquarters to a new office space in Washington, D.C. The move could have posed too much uncertainty for Peace Corps employees, but Brooks said the agency made a concerted effort to get the workforce involved.

“We ended up having an outside group that came in that helped to facilitate some of the communication needs that were necessary,” she said. “They had focus groups. We worked a lot with allowing our staff to be a part of the process in choosing the color schemes, the furniture, some of the layouts of the offices. Those types of things really helped. There were also continuous meetings. There was a working group going on for a long period of time within the agency. We had spots on our inter-agency website where people could go to find out more information, so that really helped in the move process.”

The agency’s director, who joined the Peace Corps in 2018 again after several stints in the organization as a leader and even a former volunteer, has injected some new energy in the workforce, Brooks added.

Brooks said the Peace Corps will focus on providing more training opportunities for the agency’s managers, especially in their handling of performance management and disciplinary issues.

Because most Peace Corps employees receive time-limited appointments and can’t serve longer than five years at a time, the agency is looking for new ways to better manage its talent and preserve what institutional knowledge it can, Brooks said.

That will be a priority for the Peace Corps in 2020, she added.

Talent management has and will continue to be a priority for the Farm Credit Administration, a small agency of just under 300 employees that ranked second for another consecutive year in 2019.

“We as a small agency, like many other government organizations, have a significant amount of staff who are eligible to retire in the near horizon,” Robert Coleman, the agency’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. “One of the things that we’ve tried to focus on is preparing people for opportunities, and then showing them that there are opportunities for further development, not only professionally but as a reward. [There are] different positions and other responsibilities within our agency.”

One professional program that’s worked well, according to its employees, is the Farm Credit Administration’s professional development program for entry-level talent, Coleman said.

The program focuses its attention on new employees and their first three-to-five years.

“We’ve found that it’s very important, when that program is done, to continue to keep people engaged by providing new opportunities, additional educational opportunities and engagement with their supervisor to continue that development,” Coleman said.

The Peace Corps and Farm Credit Administration, of course, aren’t the only agencies who managed to hold their own through a seemingly tumultuous and challenging year.

NASA has topped its own score for the eighth consecutive year, according to the Partnership, and it once again remained the number one large agency in government.

The Government Accountability Office has placed within the top five agencies in its category for 13 consecutive years, the Partnership said.

“It’s far more likely that the nation is being served well and problems are getting solved by good leaders who take care of their employees,” Stier said. “We need to encourage other leaders to learn from you and create a culture of appreciation governmentwide. Everyone can learn to do better.”

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