The Agriculture Department may be known for its work with farmers or fighting wildfires, but they have a workforce across the country working in offices and in the field. As any employer does today, the department must pay attention to employee experience. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the issue at workplaces around the world.
“I have many years at USDA and I just love what we do. So I speak about this from not only experience but from the heart,” said Anita Adkins, the chief human capital officer for the Department of Agriculture during an interview with Federal Monthly Insights – Employee Experience. “Currently, we have been very forward thinking in how we’ve shifted in the pandemic to maximize telework, support all of our frontline employees who were still coming to work. Then, coming out of the pandemic, what environment do we need to set for telework, remote work positions, on site, employees, and the combination of that often referred to as the hybrid workplace?”
As COVID-19 hospitalization rates drop from their peak in January 2022, the return to office drum is being beat. But employees have grown accustomed to “the new normal.” Agriculture has had to adapt to the expectation of flexibility.
“So we have just a number of flexibilities around setting work schedules, collaborating, and meeting across teams who are breaking down those geographic boundaries,” Adkins said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And so much of that dynamic is currently in place, so that employees can come in, they can be welcomed, they can be oriented, they can be successful from wherever they are located, and continue to learn and grow and develop in their career journey.”
Adkins said that USDA is looking at how to expand their telework program now, even though they have had people working virtually since before passage of the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010. She said they are using the Office of Personnel Management as a handbook for helping them manage remote workers.
“We want to ensure that we have the best talent, that we are retaining the talent of the workforce that we’re investing in, that we have a happy and productive workforce,” Adkins said. “And so wherever they need to be, however they need to work that’s going to help support our mission delivery, we’re opening our strategy and our consideration to those types of circumstances.”
To make sure that policies are resonating with their employees, the Agriculture Department uses surveys like the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Adkins said that the feedback received this way is used to inform policies.
“Every year we’ve used those scores, one, to ensure employees that we’re listening to them, and encouraging all employees to let us know what their feedback is,” she said. “Every year, we have, from a result of those responses, created survey action plans and strategies to measure change, to make adjustments in how we work, in our policies and processes. And look for those scores to increase on a number of occasions.”
People interested in working for the Agriculture Department who end up applying will have their applications considered differently than before. Adkins said that the department has moved away from “knowledge skills and abilities” types of applications, opting to consider the applicants’ resumes. She said that they are currently looking at how to evaluate applicants and are trying out a variety of assessment tools.
And for those who are hired to work from home, Adkins said that the department is working to make sure that they have all the equipment they need to be successful. That includes factoring in the lifecycle of equipment issued to remote employees. But they shouldn’t expect a printer to be on the list of approved equipment.
“Well, you know, we want to save paper and trees. However, we don’t want any employee to be dysfunctional. And so if there is a need for them to have printed documents, we’re looking at how best to do that and make sure that any type of materials have the right chain of custody, the right protocols for storage and filing,” Adkins said.