Agency managers have new data about the workforce. Will they make use of it?

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne. You might b...

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

You might be one of the federal employees who filled out that so-called pulse survey. It’s the latest way the Office of Management and Budget is hoping to get information on the workforce. It augments the yearly Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys with more frequent measures. Data is great, but will agency managers do anything with what they learn? That’s the question Bob Tobias is asking on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: All right, Bob, what’s your take on the pulse surveys? Useful? Not useful? Or it all depends?

Bob Tobias: It all depends Tom, you know, gathering data is an important first step in making change happen. And the question is whether the data will actually be used by agencies, and whether change will actually occur in response to the concerns that were identified. The survey was very short, only 10 questions and it covered three topics: navigation of the ongoing pandemic and return of federal employees to their workplaces, equity, inclusion and employee engagement and burnout. Top of the mind issues, top of the mind concerns, and the limited preliminary data showed the question, the single question of most interest is, “I trust agency leadership to do what’s right to protect employees health, safety and well being.”

Now they were mostly positive. However, it was also the question that showed the most variation from agency to agency. To me, it’s not surprising that this question received the most responses. Most federal employees who do work at home want to have the option to stay working at home, and to have a safe office environment when they return to work on a limited basis. Now, some agency heads might say, you know, I really don’t know how the agency will define who can work at home. I don’t know how well we can accommodate employees when they return to work. So I’m not prepared to say anything until I make that decision.

Or the data can be used as an opportunity to engage with the workforce through conversations between leaders and the lead at every level, to allow a solution to emerge, as opposed to being dictated from the top. I really think it helped to create engagement between leaders and lead on an important issue in Zoom world. And it would evidence agency interest in the conversations could point to a solution that’s more generally accepted. But I have no idea how agencies are going to respond to this.

Tom Temin: Well, yes, because as you pointed out, the answers vary a lot, according to agencies. And if one agency workforce says, yeah, they’re doing a great job protecting us from COVID, then I guess there’s no real clue to change course there. But on the other hand, what do you do if you are not having people come back that don’t want to come back. And they also said the agency isn’t doing much, does the implication there that we want to go back, but we want to make sure that they’re ready for us to come back. I mean, it’s hard to interpret.

Bob Tobias: But the data is available agency-by-agency. So they know quite well, whether they’re at the top or the bottom, whether people are more concerned or less concernred. So their challenge is to use this data to create a solution as opposed to ignoring it, or to wait until an agency head decides what to do and then dictates it. I think this is a perfect opportunity to engage people who have been separate from the agency because of Zoom, and to reintegrate them on a problem that’s a huge concern to the workforce.

Tom Temin:
We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. And I wanted to get your thoughts on this burnout question, because that’s kind of a leading thing to ask, are you burned out? I mean, there’s academic disagreement over whether burnout is an actual reality or not whether it really exists. So what do they say? And what’s your reaction to what people said about whether they’re burned out or not?

Bob Tobias: I’ll tell you Tom, if I were the head of SSA, or VA or USAID, and I learned from the survey that I had the most employees who feel exhausted in the morning at the thought of returning to work, I’d be concerned. Or if I were DHS, or again, SSA, who had the most employees most likely to take another job that offered the same pay and benefits, I would be concerned in an environment where it’s hard to hire, in an environment where the issues that agencies have to attend to are expanding. I need an active involved workforce. Now at SSA, VA and USAID and DHS, these folks don’t seem to be engaged. If I’m the head of that department or agency, I need to be working on re-engaging, engaging these employees in the work that we do in our agency.

Tom Temin: And how do you do that when so much of the workforce is remote? I mean, well, we can’t assume that because a lot of federal employees have place-related jobs, if you’re a TSA officer, if you’re a border patrol agent, there’s many, many that need to be there.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct, Tom. And for those who are in the workplace, it’s conversations with those people in the workplace. But those in Zoom, I think, as a leader, at every level, I need to be talking to the people I’m leading about issues that concern to them. Normally, I engage with the people I lead, to talk to them about the work they’re doing, the progress they’re making, or not making. But I think these leaders need to be engaging on matters that are of concern to the employees. And in this case, they’ve made clear what their concerns are with respect to engagement and burnout. And if I were the head, I’d be moving forward.

Tom Temin: Because there are only some things that even a manager has control over if there’s a certain workload. And there’s a program that has to be done. And you’ve got so many billets are so many FTEs, you’re allowed to have in your agency by budget, you really can’t do much about the workload, necessarily. So what are some factors that can maybe help people less burned out, but you still have to work so hard? What kind of sugar cube can you give the donkey?

Bob Tobias: Well, you know, Tom, it’s kind of interesting, I think that the fuel you give to the donkey is that I care about you. And I think what’s happened in places like SSA and DHS, the idea is or the feeling is, I don’t care about you. And when that happens, people don’t want to come to work. And they feel exhausted. And they say, you know, I’m going to get through the day, but I’m not going to get through the day, very fast or very easy. A lot of agencies hire a consulting firm, who gathers additional data, and then proposes an elaborate set of solutions, eight months or a year from now. And it’s never used. I think that’s a real failure to take accountability for what’s currently happening in the workplace and address it.

Tom Temin: And the other thing a manager can do maybe is just take a deep breath when an error happens, or some mistake occurs. Your first reaction is, look what Joe did over there. Look what Sally did over there, they screwed up this thing. But you can also take a step back, take a deep breath and say, well, they’ve been working, you know, 10 hours a day remotely without a lot of human interaction now for two years or six months, or whatever the case might be. Let me put myself in Joe or Sally’s shoes and understand how something can happen. Not that you don’t deal with it, but it’s how you deal with it that matters a lot.

Bob Tobias: I couldn’t agree more, Tom, do I deal with employees with empathy, or I deal with employees with judgment? And if I can deal with empathy, if I can understand where they are, what their issues are, what their concerns are. Then these are folks who are going to want to work with me and for me, as opposed to if I deal with judging them wrong at every step of the way.

Tom Temin: Well, too bad you and I don’t rule the world, Bob.

Bob Tobias: Next week.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. As always, thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.

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