The Interior Department has a unique workforce among government agencies, split almost down the middle between employees that work out of offices and those that work in the field. Technology investments made during the pandemic have helped Interior improve employee engagement and better connected the two halves of its workforce, but the question now is what comes next? That’s why political leadership at the department is putting together a future of work plan.
“The future of work isn’t that different for most people in Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service, but for office based workers we’re looking at do we need to change our space? Do we need to downsize our space? Do we need more hybrid technology? More video technology? Do we need to look at telework, and what’s our telework and space posture?” Jennifer Ackerman, deputy chief human capital officer at the Interior Department, said on Federal Monthly Insights – Employee Experience.
Ackerman said the technology landscape at Interior changed significantly over the pandemic. The department migrated to Microsoft Teams almost immediately, and improved its infrastructure for better capabilities outside the office. That includes increased focus on cloud migration, something she said new Chief Information Officer Darren Ash is heavily invested in.
Interior has been making progress in moving certain capabilities to the cloud, including Office 365 and implementing the architecture under Trusted Internet Connections 3.0. The Federal IT Dashboard says Interior has some challenges with its major IT programs. The latest dashboard data reveals 65% of all major programs are considered medium risk and 32% are considered low risk.
But Ackerman said the improvements Interior has made so far has helped to better integrate employees across the department, not to mention improve workflows. Field employees can now attend meetings remotely that would have required air travel before. That makes them more accessible to office employees, while also fostering an increased sense of empathy and appreciation — office employees and field employees can now actually see each other working.
And Ackerman said the numbers bear this out.
“So one thing that we’re looking at is our FEVS employee engagement, and it has increased five points over the past three years. So even during this time of maximum telework, and the fluctuation of telework remote work, we have improved our employee engagement, and we’re constantly keeping an eye on exit interviews, surveys, the FEVs. So we’re looking at what we need to do to staying engaged with our employees,” she told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Onboarding remotely during the pandemic has also been largely successful, according to Ackerman. Within a few months on the job, she said, 84% of new employees say they feel like part of the organization, 90% say their coworkers were welcoming, and 86% say their supervisors value and support work-life balance. She said Interior is making it a point to touch base with employees around engagement as frequently as possible.
“We’re getting from the feedback from employees, they really like coming to DOI because of the mission,” Ackerman said. “And then they stay because of the employees and the coworkers and the supervisor support that they have.”
That said, Interior is trying to increase that sense of engagement even further by having new employees come into the office for group onboarding whenever possible.
And she said Interior is currently hiring, and as part of those efforts, it’s trying to increase transparency around the hiring process. The department is sending not only hiring managers but also HR specialists to hiring events to give potential recruits a better understanding of the hiring process. Ackerman said USAJobs is often opaque to people not already familiar with federal employment, so explaining that process up front helps give them a better idea of what to expect.
Ackerman also said Interior is using whatever hiring authorities it can – it has 40, some of them unique to the department – to speed up the hiring process wherever possible. It has direct hire authority, for example, for certain professions like firefighters. But some positions, like law enforcement officers, still have to go through background checks, which can slow the process considerably.
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.