Demystifying Employee Engagement for Federal Leaders

Employee engagement isn’t just a buzz-phrase anymore. It is an essential indicator in every good leader’s eyesight. Its permanent position in the vernacular brings a lot of good news, clarity, and a few surprises! But, along with the good news, are some areas of caution that we hope to help Federal leaders navigate.

In October, OPM released the full results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) reflecting a 1 percent increase in the employee engagement index score to 64%. The increase is statistically significant, and many agencies had higher gains while others slipped in ratings.

Gallup also released its employee engagement findings from its recent poll, which indicated that, in the U.S., 32% of workers were engaged in their jobs in September. Results were slightly up from last year and relatively flat throughout 2015. The September 2015 estimate is based on Gallup Daily tracking interviews with 6,926 adults working for an employer full or part-time – not just the Federal government sector.

Why the big difference? And, are government employees really that much more engaged?

That is hard to say. The difference could be due, in part, to the questions asked, how they were asked, the methodology used in each case, and so forth. Another perspective could be that the difference has a lot to do with factors like transparency, public visibility of results, support, and shared vision.

The FEVS results for Federal employees are published by agency, accessible online to anyone – including the general public, agencies competing for talent, the workforce and leaders alike. (Results were opened to the public in September.) So, awareness is high and the vision is clear. It’s like the saying that “What gets measured gets done.”

What if this transparency and public visibility happened in the private sector? It would mean that companies competing for talent would have their scores publicly on display – and they’d participate in the survey in the first place. Not only would they know how they were performing, but they’d also know how their competitors perform. And, they’d be aware that their current and prospective employees, customers, partners, competitors and the press would have access to this data. Now, that would be a game changer!

And there’s more…

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is a resource that the private sector doesn’t have. It is a centralized champion of the Federal survey, helping agencies make findings actionable in a variety of ways. OPM launched, which has powerful purpose. And, OPM has begun offering webinars to provide key insights and facilitate sharing of best practices about improving employee engagement among agencies.

Federal agencies have a shared vision and ownership. Each agency was asked to appoint a senior accountable official with the responsibility for improving employee engagement. Agencies large and small across the Federal government are measured in the same way – with over 421,000 employees from 82 agencies represented in the recent FEVS results alone. Leaders have a shared government vision to monitor and improve the results. An astounding 50% of Federal employees asked responded, which could be because there was confidence that the results would be used to drive change.

You might wonder what’s mission got to do with it?  

We did. The Federal survey found that “90 percent or more of employees view their work as important, are willing to commit extra effort when necessary to get their jobs done, and consistently seek out ways to do their jobs better.” In alignment with expert views on employee engagement, when employees view their work to be valuable and linked to mission, employee engagement is higher. This quote gives the very definition of engagement that most experts would agree upon. Other surveys across a variety of employer industries don’t even come close to this percentage.

Cause for concern? What else do the surveys say? 

Let’s take a look at the surveys themselves. Gallup’s survey shows employee engagement overall shifting slightly, from 31% in 2014 to 32% in 2015. Gallup has called out the government sector in prior analysis, indicating that this subset of its sample is even less engaged than the workforce overall:

“On average, 27% of federal government employees are engaged in their jobs in 2014, compared with 31% of all other workers in the U.S. With more than 2 million federal employees, this lack of engagement is costing the federal government an estimated $18 billion in lost productivity annually, or approximately $9,000 per employee.”

One can debate the surveys, Gallup’s calculations of the productivity costs, and the massive gap between employee engagement numbers published by FEVS versus Gallup.

Should leaders be even more concerned than their FEVS results might indicate? And, if so, what should they do about it?

Action plan and warnings

Regardless of the specific numbers or survey instrument, important facts remain the same. The links between employee engagement, success of mission, and service to the public are widely accepted. It is imperative that leaders do the following:

  1. Stay focused on what matters

How you interpret survey results – and comparing surveys – can be tricky. Stay focused on what matters. Government agency leaders must keep their focus on impacting the key drivers of engagement, which the experts agree on in concept, and they must work continuously to improve in those areas. Watching their FEVS individual results and focusing on shifting those is important. In a perspective about HUD, one of the leaders in increasing FEVS employee engagement results by 5%, OPM points out key areas of focus for all organizations:

“Leadership involvement, improving internal communications, and enabling employees to have more input into how their organization functions are proven approaches to boosting employee engagement and performance.”

The Human Capital Institute (“HCI”) provides a similar recap: “The last few years of surveys and research have determined the most effective ways to increase employee engagement are through:

  • Manager accountability and senior executive buy-in for engagement.
  • Developing employee skills and career paths.
  • A trusting and sincere connection to senior leaders and direct supervisors.”
  1. Beware of complacency

As their results for FEVS remain high or continue to climb, agencies can’t afford to get complacent – particularly in light of the lower results in the Gallup non-Federally focused workforce study. Why? How you treat and involve employees – from identification to onboarding through their experience on the job and beyond – is what counts. An employee engagement percentage is a snapshot in time. It can shift with new leadership, a change in employees, culture change and more.

  1. Think about when engagement starts – and act on it

When can you begin to influence employee engagement and how? Most experts rightfully say that employers need to make sure that they need to look at what they’re doing to ensure employees have the best experience from day one on the job.

We’re encouraging leaders to think about what happens even before the employee starts work. Why? During the interview stage and the onboarding process, the employee begins to get an understanding of organizational mission and their connection to it. It is his/her first experience with culture and leadership – and the first opportunity to see how his/her work will matter, what type of feedback and openness to ideas exist, and much more.

A few factors to consider: Do you survey your employees about their interview experience? Do you survey them on their onboarding process? Or, their first few weeks on the job? Most employers would agree that the preparation and onboarding process directly links to an employee’s ability to be productive from day one.

This also impacts the employee’s perceptions of the job, organization, leadership and so much more. Have you analyzed the experience from the employee’s view from their first encounter with your agency and team? What does it feel like at every stage of the process – and how does your process contribute to or detract from the drivers of employee engagement at the earliest stages?

  1. Watch out for the obstacles to employee engagement

The Human Capital Institute (“HCI”) has done a great job of outlining the top ways to increase employee engagement as well as the obstacles to improving it. Use these as a guideline to watch what you do from another important angle:

  • “Lack of a clear employee engagement strategy.
  • Lack of consistent buy-in and accountability among middle managers who may also not be engaged.
  • No clear owner leading the effort.
  • Limited funding to support employee engagement efforts.
  • Senior management has not identified employee engagement as a priority.”
  1. Recognize your competition and why it matters

As talent markets continue to tighten and skilled workers are increasingly in demand, Federal agencies not only will be competing with each other for the talent they need – but also with private employers around the globe. The message is to act now and continue to do so, or be stuck without the engaged workforce you need now and later.

  1. Educate yourself and act

There are vast number of resources in the public and private sectors that shed light on employee engagement, workforce trends and how to positively shift those important contributors to employee engagement.

To learn more, check out the resources below:

  • On October 29, 2015, OPM hosted a webinar that was focused on employee engagement. At the time of this blog, it is unknown if that is available in recorded format or if more will be done in the future.
  • The Human Capital Institute has an annual conference focused on employee engagement.
  • Search online to find the variety of private sector associations and organizations focused on talent management and HR. There are many resources available on the topic of employee engagement.

Stay tuned for our next blog and please contact us for more information about HRworx!