Engaging DHS employees during a pandemic

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This big department has been working to raise its employee engagement score since the beginning. With a diverse set of missions, its workforce has been hit hard in many ways by the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped its leadership from continuing to keep people engaged. And for the latest, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the Department of Homeland Security’s Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Angela, good to have you back.

Angela Bailey: Thank you. Very good to be back, appreciate the opportunity.

Tom Temin: So give us the rundown on just raw percentages or the generalities on how many people are teleworking because you’ve got a big field workforce in many of the agencies but also lots of headquarters and policy and acquisition people. So what does it look like across DHS?

Angela Bailey: We probably have 80-20% split here. So I would say 80% of our workforce because we are so very, as you know, law enforcement-centric, are working frontline whether it’s TSA, FEMA responders, especially in light of all the hurricanes and things – Customs Border and Protection, Secret Service, ICE, etc. So they’re all working as they always have I’ve been on the front lines. And so then the rest of the workforce, take, for example, my own office, within the management headquarters directory, etc. – they have all switched over to telework and our telework at the beginning of COVID, versus where it is now has just skyrocketed. And I would say, in essence, we’re saturated at the point of saying that we’re almost basically 100% telework, of those positions that can telework.

Tom Temin: Got it, so you have a little bit more of a, I guess, complicated problem of keeping people engaged because those that are going to work normally, on the front lines, the front lines themselves have gotten more dangerous because of the pandemic.

Angela Bailey: Oh, absolutely. And, and you know, and I think the other thing, it’s not just that their jobs have gotten more difficult. You also have the added stress of the child care situation and the school situation, right? So whether you’re teleworking or you’re on the front lines, you’ve got this situation where nobody’s really sure what to do with their children. And so those that are teleworking have the added stress of having children running around who you know might want their little princess dresses zipped up. And they don’t really frankly, care that you’re in the middle of a conference call, versus, you know, those on the front line who got to get to work on time, and they don’t have anybody who’s available to take care of their children. So it has really complicated things for our workforce, not just our workforce. So honestly, this is – I always say this, right, at 250,000 strong, we’re a microcosm of society. So whatever it is that the United States or citizens are facing, so too are our employees.

Tom Temin: Sure, and so tell us how your office as chief human capital officer is communicating and coordinating with some of the operating offices to monitor how people are doing and how their engagement is.

Angela Bailey: So there’s one thing that I personally have been doing and that is communicating with the workforce on a weekly basis. I’ve since switched those over to being a blog, which is actually on our public facing websites so that the families can have access to it too. So you know is incredible to me that throughout all this, I think the number one thing that I’ve really learned is that people want to be connected, that they want to share their stories that they want to – that they want to feel like they’re part of a community. And so one of the ways that really been keeping in touch with them is by having these weekly emails. It’s incredible to me the thousands of responses that I’ve received, and I respond to each and every one of them, the connections that have been made, and you get to hear then real life stories like what they’re facing, and then we follow that up with a survey to our workforce. Over 38,000 employees responded to it. Eighteen thousand employees provided written comments. And we used all of that information as well as the thousands of emails I’ve received, as well as the town hall meetings that we’ve had, the reach outs to our employees to really help I think, shape and form our policies going forward with the workforce. And I think that that’s been really quite beneficial because in real time, we know like we’re not waiting for once-a-year feds right to find out something in real time. We know exactly what their needs are. And we’re addressing those needs on the fly.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Angela Bailey, she is the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department. And what are some of the policies and things you put in place in response to what you’ve learned in those surveys?

Angela Bailey: And great example is, whenever anecdotally, of course, through the emails and then through the survey responses two things: Number one, this child care and school situation is unnerving for our parents. So we’ve really kind of stepped it up with ways to like, have virtual family days, for example, to help include the kids and so that it feels more inclusive with the families instead of the kids being made to feel like you know, they’re just a burden for the parents. That’s not really a policy thing. One of the policy things though that we’ve done is made it very clear to our components into the leadership is that not only is the child care situation in schools an issue so is employees fear of public transportation, right, it’s just getting to work. I think they believe once they get to work, we’ll keep ’em as safe as we can, but getting to work is a little unnerving. And so one of the things that we’ve put out is like, look, guys, you’ve got to pay attention to the fact that they’re taking this seriously, they’re very concerned about this, that they have no alternatives for their children. So continue maximum enhance flexibilities to the best of your ability, not just telework, by the way. Let’s also rethink how we do work schedules. Let’s also rethink how we do maxi flex schedules. In other words, if you have an 80-hour work week, maybe that 80-hour work week consists of working, you know, from 3-9 at night versus 9-5 in the morning kind of thing. Because, you know, you guys split childcare responsibilities with your spouse, just as an example. Or maybe you got to jump off because you got to start, you know, their piano lessons that virtual piano lessons at three, and then you got to jump back on. So, honestly, we’re just trying to like understand, like, what it is that you’re facing, how do we address those fears and concerns? And then how do we make smart decisions that doesn’t drive more fear in the workforce and just stresses amount, and then that just has an impact on productivity.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned also that – it’s not a policy initiative, but the virtual family days. You had a lot of initiatives in place that were aimed at the wholeness and wellness of employees. Before the pandemic hit, we discussed those last year on an interview. Tell us have they gone virtual? And what are some of the things you’re doing on that softer side of outside of policy?

Angela Bailey: Yes, so this is amazing. Like, we basically took this battleship right and turned it on a dime. And we’re able to actually go to virtual for just about everything to include, by the way, our leadership development programs like our in-house leadership development programs, as well as like our stronger bonds training, which is couple’s communication skills that I think that went up by 300%. You know, we also do mindfulness training, that skyrocketed, you know, our meditation and mindfulness training and stuff. We’ve instituted that by the way, this is really kind of fascinating, at FLETC – Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Our folks had to be quarantined for the first 14 days coming in to get it up and running. So we talked with leadership down and were like, you know, this is a great opportunity. Why don’t we teach them mindfulness while they’re like stuck in a room and not have anything really to do? Why don’t we give them skills that they might then need. And then you’re not actually having to take that time while they’re in training. You’re training them on this while they’re there. Plus, it gives them a much needed skill, which is you know, how to kind of get a little bit of peace within themselves, while they’re kind of dealing with all the stresses that they’re facing. So it’s just been wonderful to see how this agency just took everything that it had, turned it into virtual and people responded. The other cool thing that we’re learning is, you know, in the past whenever we would do as a training like on FERS, right, or benefits and things like that it was just for the employees. Well, guess what, now that it’s virtual, now we have spouses listening in, you know, so now like the family gets to hear about retirement benefits and what’s going on and not just the employees. So there are a lot of advantages that we’re finding – let’s just put it this way, we’re taking advantage of the situation to really figure out ways to grow in numerous different ways that I think help benefit the employees and their families.

Tom Temin: Do you think this will bounce back to the way it was before? Or will we end up for the long term in some hybrid situation?

Angela Bailey: I predict a hybrid situation. I don’t think you’ll ever go back. Like, I just don’t think it’ll ever go back to the way it was. First of all, as an agency, and we’ve said this from day one, DHS never stopped working. And we’re not alone as a federal agency, right? There’s many federal agencies, but we’re very proud of the fact that not only are we getting the job done, we’re in some cases getting it done even better than we did before. And that’s despite all the stresses that our employees are under. So I just think it’ll be a hybrid version. In fact, we’re already starting to talk about things like what do you do with these GSA buildings? Right? What do you do with these leases? Do you take the money that you had in building out office space, and instead you invested in more advanced IT equipment for the employees so that they can do their job at home even better than they do it today? So those are the kinds of conversations we’re starting to have now versus how do we get everybody back to work? That’s not the conversation. The conversation is, to use the saying, how do you make sure that a good crisis does not go to waste?

Tom Temin: Well stated and anything else from the surveys that have struck you that is something that is a new learning here?

Angela Bailey: From the surveys, I think the biggest thing that struck me is how much people value the human experience, right? How much people value the fact that they want to be a part of a community that they want to share their stories that in the past, they may not have known what each other has done, but now, now they feel this common goal, right? There’s a common enemy, and it’s the pandemic and it’s the virus and we’re all kind of in this together. But what I’ve really found is like people are rethinking their lives. I mean, honestly, not that they’re really rethinking their jobs, but they’re rethinking their lives like was that really all that important that I did x whenever I could take a walk in nature, right? Or I could do something that is so different than I’ve ever done before. That’s what I’m finding is that people are really taking the time to re-evaluate what’s important.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so perhaps we don’t even know the total long term changes. But sounds like some long term positives could come out of all of this.

Angela Bailey: I think so I’m, I mean, hey, call me I’m an optimist to the core but, I do believe that positive change is coming out of this. I believe managers who were hardcore over telework, and you know, “I have to see my employee every single day.” Now, all of a sudden, they’re at home as well, right, with their two-year-old. And they too have figured out, “Oh my God, I can telework, I can get things done, I can be productive. I don’t have to see my employees, you know, every day to get things done. There are ways to communicate.” And so I think it’s helped some of our hardened leadership who was absolutely against some of these more progressive ideas, have really taken a different turn on this. And now I hear some of those hardcore folks saying, you know, this is working. Not only is it working, it’s working incredibly well. And whatever is our recipe for success, let’s keep it going.

Tom Temin: Angela Bailey is the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department. Thanks so much.

Angela Bailey: You’re more than welcome. Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.