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Engaging Federal Employees in Troubled Times

It is fair to say that the Federal workforce may be feeling rather dejected these days.  As elected officials fight over plans to reduce the deficit and balance the budget, Federal employees are not surprisingly stuck in the middle.  Their annual pay increases have been frozen.  Agencies have been instructed to reduce the money spent on employee performance awards.  There are discussions about whether employees should pay a larger share of their retirement benefits and whether the retirement plan should be restructured completely.  There are proposals to shrink the size of the workforce which could result in layoffs or at least more “doing more with less.” 

These issues can have a direct impact on how employees feel about their jobs and in particular, on retention, employee engagement, and performance.  Federal managers have the unenviable task of managing the workforce and keeping employees engaged and centered on the mission of the organization while all of this is going on around them.  That is not an easy job, but there are some strategies that may help.

First, we have to understand what drives employee engagement.  Yes, employees value extrinsic motivators such as pay, benefits, and job security.  These factors play an important role in employees making the choice to stay with the organization and to perform as expected.  Engagement, however, comes from a heightened connection between employees and their work, their organization, or the people they work for or with that causes them to put forth greater discretionary effort and produce better results for the organization.  Research indicates that highly engaged employees are likely to put up with short periods of dissatisfaction with things like pay and benefits and still remain committed to the organization and its mission.

So how do managers engage employees?  In our 2008 report, The Power of Federal Employee Engagement, we identified six issues that are important to fostering employee engagement.  They are: pride in one’s work or workplace; satisfaction with leadership; opportunity to perform well at work; satisfaction with recognition received; prospect for future personal and professional growth; and a positive work environment with some focus on teamwork.  Obviously, some of these issues will be difficult to deal with when there are limited resources available, such as money for awards and training.  We recommend identifying 2-3 strategies that do not rely on monetary resources but improve the connection between employees and their organization.

For instance, make work meaningful.  Most people join the Government because they want to do important work that has broad impact.  Missions have not changed.  What the Government does is still important, so focus your employees on that.  Communicate regularly with employees to discuss organizational goals and strategies.  Clearly link their performance goals with organizational goals so employees have a direct line of sight between what they do and the mission of the agency.  Keep employees informed of organizational progress and discuss regularly how you and your employees can demonstrate the positive impact you have on the American public.  Creating that pride in one’s work and workplace will keep employees connected to and engaged in the mission.

Another strategy to further employee engagement is to treat employees as business partners.  Let them know you’re all in this together, and you need their help to get through these difficult times.  Empowering them will help create a positive work environment with a focus on teamwork.  Give employees autonomy and authority to make decisions that impact their work.  Solicit and use their input to improve office processes and products.  Create a safe environment to express their opinions, and allow employees to make honest mistakes.  In return for these flexibilities, hold employees accountable for the outcomes of their work. 

Another strategy to further engagement is to recognize employees’ contributions.  Most people think this means giving employees monetary awards, but that is not the only way to reward performance.  Recognition for one’s work is a fundamental human need and strategies to do this can include simple words of praise, time off for good work, special assignments, increased autonomy, or public recognition.  Be honest with employees that you may not be able to provide monetary awards; but in exchange, be sure to let them know in some way when they’ve done a good job.

The reality of today’s environment is that it is hard to keep employees engaged.  They come to work striving to do something positive for the American public, and often the only feedback they receive is the negative press they read in the papers.  Managers can help re-engage those employees by focusing on the intrinsic motivators that make employees want to come to work.  For additional strategies, refer to our report The Power of Federal Employee Engagement.