By Dan Gephart, April 16, 2019

Spurred on by the executive orders issued last year by President Trump, Health and Human Services resumed a once-stalled collective bargaining process with the National Treasury Employees Union. Those negotiations reached an impasse that resulted earlier this month in a Federal Service Impasses Panel ruling that could lead to HHS significantly rolling back its telework program, as well as policies on official time, office space, and leave.

For Labor Relations practitioners, this FSIP decision is a reminder of the power last May’s EOs has given them in the collective bargaining process. (Be sure to catch former FSIP Executive Director Joe Schimansky’s Significant Cases and Developments at the FLRA webinar on June 18).

For federal work/life experts, the FSIP’s decision created concern, but for a different reason. One of those alarmed work/life experts is Mika J. Cross, Federal Workplace Expert and VP of Employer Engagement and Strategic Initiatives at FlexJobs. Cross is worried not only about the impact of FSIP’s ruling on the nearly 20 percent of HHS employees who currently telework, but also on the government’s overall ability to recruit qualified young employees.

“Coming from a long career in public service, I know how very hard it is to even be able to attract the right candidates for open vacancies in government, let alone fill them in a timely and efficient manner,” Cross said. “The government at large already has a branding issue and coming off the heels of the latest shutdown, that’s not going to make the nation’s largest employer look any more appealing as a best place to work, especially for those younger workers getting ready to graduate this spring who are looking for the first step in their career.

“A cart blanche approach to restricting flexibility also restricts empowering first line managers and supervisors from making the best decisions for their workers,” Cross continued. “And studies show, year after year, the impact that work flexibility and remote work can have on productivity and performance. At this point, a move like this is laughable.”

If you’ve worked in the Federal government for even a little while, you know Mika Cross. The U.S. Army veteran and “Public Service Passionista” keeps very busy spreading the positive message of Workplace Transformation. You have likely watched her on Government Matters or seen her speak at a conference, or you may be one of her numerous followers on LinkedIn and Twitter (@Mika_Cross).

The most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) offered some stark numbers about federal managers. Two examples: Only 28 percent of non-supervisory employees believe that steps are taken to deal with poor performers, and more than a third of employees believe that differences in work performance are not recognized in meaningful way. This seemed like a good place to start our conversation.

DG: What is the main message supervisors should learn from the most recent FEVS? 

MC: There is a very strong correlation between overall engagement and an employee’s propensity to stay in government. Those who indicated they intended to stay, are generally more engaged than their colleagues who aren’t. This will matter deeply in the coming year, especially when 27 percent of employees who took the FEVS, revealed they were planning to take another job (either within or outside of the Federal government) and 25 percent want to retire within the next five years.

OPM processed nearly 12,000 more federal retirements in 2018 compared to 2017, a five-year high, according to a Federal News Network analysis. If this continues to trend upwards, agencies could be faced with even more of a significant hurdle in mission operations.

DG:  What can front-line and second-line supervisors do to make their workplace more engaging and productive?

MC: Focus on organizational citizenship behaviors, meaning inspire, encourage, motivate and reward employees for their discretionary behavior and positive activities that help contribute to the overall welfare of the organization, and that go well beyond simple job duties and work requirements. Overall, supervisors can directly impact employee dedication, sense of purpose and their attachment to their mission and the organization.

DG: How do they do this? 

MC: Have a conversation, invite them to an interactive dialogue and check in regularly to learn how you can support your team’s personal and professional goals. Listening and responding to how Federal employees feel about their role within their organizations, and the work they do serving the American people, is something you can check in with them regularly about. No need to wait for the next FEVS cycle. You can:

  • Reinforce and explain the linkages between individual employee actions, workload, projects and activities to the organizational and business unit vision.
  • Re-design work to encourage more autonomy, creativity and innovation.
  • Enforce effective performance management practices that focus on early course correction, learning, growing and always strive to be supportive, not dismissive, or overly critical.
  • Offer and encourage using all the supportive employee and workplace resources that are available, such as onsite wellness programs, flexible work schedules, telework programs, employee advocacy and community affinity groups, financial literacy, continuing education and other workplace activities that help make your agency a better place to work, for all.
  • Encourage frequent and open communication with employees; model and reward appropriate co-worker relationships.

DG: How important is it that federal supervisors hold employees accountable and why?

MC: Although the five-year trend for FEVS responses, in general, indicates an uptick and continues to move in a positive direction, it’s clear that employee perception of performance management practices needs continued focus and attention. Some of the lowest scores came from questions dealing with the relationship between performance and rewards. If employees do not feel valued or acknowledged for a job well done, how do we imagine they will continue to feel dedicated and vested in the work they do every day?

Reinforce good behavior, ask your employees about the kinds of incentives that would be most meaningful to them, as they demonstrate quality and impactful work. You may be surprised to hear that an incentive for one employee may be a time off award, or ability to take a training course or attend a networking event during duty hours, rather than a monetary bonus; or additional flexibility in their work schedule or permission to telework more frequently; for others, taking on a new assignment or gaining permission to work on a project outside of their normal position description, may be a wonderful way to incentivize a job-well-done and inspire more creativity and innovation.

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