It’s easy to assume that a year like 2020 might upend the slow but steady progress the Department of Homeland Security has made recently in improving employee engagement inside the third-largest federal agency.
The department still ranks last among large agencies on the most recent Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, which the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group released last week.
But DHS has steadily improved since it hit a low point in 2015, and its overall engagement scores improved by four points over the previous year on the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. On the Best Places to Work Rankings, DHS jumped nearly nine points.
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The results weren’t surprising for Angela Bailey, DHS’ chief human capital officer, despite those easy assumptions.
For Bailey, the progress within the last year is the testament to the effort DHS leaders and supervisors made to stay connected with the workforce, give them as many tools and protective equipment as possible, and maximize telework and other workplace flexibilities during the pandemic.
Leadership has taken a more hands-on approach, a shift that started when current DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was the department’s deputy.
“Employee engagement is not complicated or complex,” Bailey said in an interview. “Sometimes it’s just having a one-on-one connection with people and letting them know that you care and that you’re listening to them.”
Bailey, as well as the other top DHS leaders, sent out messages to all 250,000 employees within the department. The messages were more personal than the emails she and others previously sent to the DHS workforce.
“I would have never, as the CHCO, written to all 250,000 employees,” she said. “I would have used the chain of command, gone to the component leadership and it would have gone down through their chains of command. What I was able to do is reach out to them directly, and be able to send email messages to them that I would say were not really traditional.”
Hundreds of employees wrote back, and Bailey said she responded to each of them.
Beyond the efforts to stay connected with employees during the last year, the department also ramped up ongoing initiatives to provide more resources to DHS employees and their families.
“Whatever goes on at home goes on at work. And whatever goes on at work goes on at home,” Bailey said. “How do we try to help and make both of those environments as meaningful as we possibly can for people, so that as they transfer back and forth between these different lives that they have that somehow we’re able to create some continuity, security safety and the like just to make their lives better. That’s what I think you see as a result of these leadership scores.”
The emergency and backup child care programs DHS launched before the pandemic were a “life saver” during the health crisis, as were the mindfulness training and other employee resources the department started as part of its employee and family readiness initiative.
DHS will soon begin a new onboarding program for employees and their families.
The department is creating new materials for DHS family members and will invite the spouses and children of new employees to “onboarding sessions.” The goal, Bailey said, is to help the family members of new DHS employees better understand what the job will be like and how it might impact their lives at home.
“We’re trying our best to give them and deliver to them programs that honestly enhance their [lives],” she said. “We believe that in of itself will help enhance how well they do the mission.”
In the next year, Bailey said DHS is focused on tying together its leadership development, diversity and inclusion, and employee engagement initiatives. Each feed off and inform the other.
“You’re not going to feel inclusive or included in an environment if your childcare needs aren’t taken care of,” Bailey said.
It’s why DHS is teaching its leaders about the science of understanding how other people think and act, she said.
“How do you determine what somebody’s needs are?” Bailey said. “How do you meet somebody where their needs are today, and how do you do it in a way that’s somewhat consistent but yet isn’t so consistent that it’s draconian?”
The biggest goal, she said, is to meet employees where they are but strike the right balance between flexibility and accountability and oversight.
DHS sees telework as those flexibilities. Like many agencies, DHS saw an upswing in employee telework in 2020, though the increase isn’t as dramatic as other departments.
Just 2% of the DHS workforce teleworked daily before the pandemic. By the peak of the health emergency, 31% of DHS employees teleworked every day. At least 47% of the department’s workforce can’t telework because they have to be physically present for their jobs, according to DHS’ 2020 FEVS results.
As is the case at many other agencies, telework is here to stay at DHS, Bailey said.
“We’ve held many focus groups with our employees,” she said. “We’ve listened to them; we’ve had town halls. What you’re going to find is a hybrid approach. I’m not sure that we’ll go back to the days where people can only telework one day a week. Instead it’ll be very ad hoc.”
Those conversations are prompting new discussions about DHS office space, Bailey said.
“The whole issue of telework is really not that hard or complicated. Neither is remote work. You either can or you can’t,” she said. “When we are in the office, how do we create spaces in which we can collaborate or celebrate in ways that make sense?”
The department is also evaluating whether positions could be completely virtual — and whether they can recruit from outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, perhaps from a location with a lower cost-of-living. Salaries for those employees might be lower, Bailey said, but DHS still needs to plan for those individuals to occasionally travel to their home offices.
“A lot of the job announcements will say, ‘location to be determined.’ Or, ‘working schedule to be determined,'” Bailey said. “What that really means is that’s going to be a negotiation between the potential employee and us over where they want to live. What schedule do they want to work, and how best can we make that work for everybody?”
Keeping these workplace flexibilities around are necessary, Bailey said, if the department wants to have a shot at recruiting and retaining the best and brightest — and engaging them for the long run.
“If we aren’t, and that’s what people want, that’s where people will go,” she said. “Every leader needs to understand that this little ship has sailed, and if you want to be competitive with other agencies or the private sector, you’re going to have to rethink where work needs to be done and how work needs to be done.”