Meet the agency whose COVID-19 response earned near-perfect marks

More than 97% of employees at the Farm Credit Administration gave the agency high marks for its COVID-19 responses over the last year, the most of any large, me...

They’re hoping it doesn’t become a regular tradition, but the agencies who earned top marks for their responses to the pandemic from employees have scores for the history books.

The Farm Credit Administration earned the highest COVID-19 response score of any large, medium or small agency on the latest Best Places to Work rankings from the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting group.

The Farm Credit Administration, which ranks as the fifth best place to work among small agencies, earned a score of 97.2 for its overall COVID-19 response.

The scores come from the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, where 98% of employees agreed FCA senior leaders had demonstrated a commitment to their health and safety.

For Vonda Bell, the agency’s chief human capital officer, FCA already had many tools and programs in place before the pandemic; leaders and supervisors simply expanded them, communicated them and encouraged employees to use them.

“Everything that they needed was already there for them, and that brought a sense of calm to a very real disruption at the time in the lives of our employees,” Bell said in an interview.

Like many agencies, the Farm Credit Administration dramatically expanded telework last year.

Just 4% of the FCA workforce teleworked on a daily basis before the pandemic. By the peak of the health crisis, 98% of FCA employees worked remotely every day, with 95% continuing daily telework last fall.

“It was a pretty easy transition, quite frankly,” said Farm Credit Administration Chairman and CEO Glen Smith, who worked remotely from his farm in Iowa for a period of time during the pandemic.

Though most FCA employees perhaps weren’t accustomed to daily telework, 43% of the workforce teleworked at one or two days a week before the pandemic, according to the agency’s survey results.

Like many agencies, the Farm Credit Administration held a practice telework day last year before it became mandatory, and it reimbursed employees for supplies and helped them set up their home working arrangements, Bell said.

When some in-office restrictions lifted, Smith and other FCA leaders recorded video messages detailing the safety protocols the agency had implemented.

“We preferred to rely on our data analytics and economics group to provide us with updates every month on each location, hospitalization rates, mortality rates and infection rates so we could monitor the trends,” Smith said. “At one point it looked like we may even be able to consider coming back to work last fall. Obviously that changed. The metrics changed and the trends changed, and we remained flexible with our policy. We would communicate that with our employees on a regular basis so they knew exactly what the management team, what the leadership and what the board were thinking about.”

FCA leaders sent employees regular messages, and the workforce came to expect them at the same time each week or month, said Bell, who compared the communications to receiving the Sunday paper.

The agency purposely did not openly speculate about when it might ask employees to come back to work, which Smith said was a key part of the Farm Credit Administration’s communication strategy.

About 95% of FCA employees said senior leaders effectively communicated with them during the pandemic, according to the 2020 FEVS.

“It’s important that we didn’t project ahead, and we didn’t put any future dates or deadlines in front of us as far as changing our policies or changing our phases, until we analyzed the data and knew if that was appropriate or not,” Smith said. “We didn’t build any expectations throughout the past 15 or 16 months. We made sure to just go on a month-to-month basis and stay very flexible based on what the health metrics showed.”

The Farm Credit Administration relied on its supervisors to quickly roll out or expand many of the workplace flexibilities they offered to employees during the pandemic.

Smith said FCA leadership kept expectations high about getting the work done. Supervisors, who perhaps needed only one in-person meeting to accomplish a task before the pandemic, met multiple times with employees virtually to accommodate their schedules and needs, he added.

Roughly 98% of FCA employees agreed their supervisors had shown concern for their health and safety, while 99% said their managers supported their efforts to stay safe while working.

“One thing that I saw across the board from supervisors was that they assumed positive intent from the standpoint of employees,” Bell said. “In some agencies you have these situations where managers may not trust everything that the employees say or everything that they tell you that they’re doing. We just did not have that problem at FCA. Our supervisors assumed positive intent. They provided our employees with the flexibilities that they needed. They were very empathetic.”

FCA also actively tried to prevent “self-inflicted” guilt among employees who had young children at home, Bell said.

“That just makes a world of difference when you’re talking about someone’s life and their livelihood and their family, to know that your leader understands and is there with you to support you,” she said. “I think that’s what we modeled.”

While the Farm Credit Administration is open to keeping many of the telework and other flexibilities they expanded during the pandemic, the agency is not issuing a new sweeping policy for the entire workforce, Smith said.

“The board has stayed away from any generalized comments,” he said. “We feel it should be a relationship between offices [and] between supervisors and employees depending on the type of job that they do. To issue any type of general statement is probably a little naïve, because there are some jobs that require more teamwork, more face-to-face work and more group work than others.”

For Bell, FCA has been careful to make any major policy decisions before it’s necessary. She said she’s seen private sector companies make promises about workplace flexibilities during the pandemic, only to walk them back later and frustrate employees.

“We’re not going to make these sweeping, blanket kinds of recommendations,” she said. “We’re going to be more deliberate about this. Some of these decisions will made at the local level to the extent possible.”

Starting July 19, the Farm Credit Administration will allow up to 50% of employees back into agency offices if they choose, Smith said.

He envisions a fuller return-to-work coinciding with the start of the school year, but a formal decision hasn’t been made. Individual FCA offices are submitting plans that describe what telework and other  arrangements work best for them, Smith said.

“We’re seeing a lot more employees come into the building voluntarily and [are] really enjoying a return-to-work-like atmosphere,” he added.

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