By Dan Gephart, November 10, 2020

We’re still a good half-year away from the next Public Service Recognition Week, but we need not wait until May 2021 to recognize the critical work civil servants have done over the last several months.

You know it’s a challenging year when the (arguably) most well-known and respected federal employee, Dr. Anthony Fauci, needs to be protected from constant death threats – at the same time he and his colleagues are working to save lives. Meanwhile, we need to recognize the important work everyone else out there in FELTG Nation is doing during these very trying, and logistically challenging times.

Recognition is a key part of employee engagement, and so we reached out this week to someone who knows a lot about both subjects. Bob Lavigna (pictured above), the former vice president of research for the nonprofit/non-partisan Partnership for Public Service, directed the annual Best Places to Work in Federal Government. The Partnership was also responsible for the federal government’s wide embrace of Public Service Recognition Week, providing a toolkit, organizing events, and facilitating executive proclamations.

Lavigna, author of Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance, is now director of the CPS HR Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement. He has also been assistant vice chancellor and director of HR for the University of Wisconsin — and he’s a previous winner of Governing Magazine’s Public Official of the Year award.

Lavigna’s focus these days at CPS is on local and state government, as well as nonprofits, but his advice and perspective are as useful as ever for federal leaders.

DG: Not considering the pandemic, what are the biggest barriers keeping supervisors from being better at employee engagement?

BL: I think there are two primary barriers – not understanding why improving engagement is important and not knowing how to improve it.

In the first case, supervisors often consider engagement to be just another touchy-feely HR fad or about making employees happy all the time. And their job is to deliver results, not make sure everyone is happy. What these managers and supervisors often fail to realize is that improving engagement drives productivity and results. In other words, they don’t appreciate the business case for engagement. As I describe in Engaging Government Employees, decades of research, including in government, have clearly shown that improving engagement can dramatically improve organizational performance.

The second reason concerns how to improve engagement. Too often, even when leaders want to improve engagement, they guess about how. The book 180 Ways to Build Employee Engagement includes great suggestions. The challenge is to figure out what will work in an individual organization or work unit. Too often, leaders act without data on what matters to their employees.

Research has shown that the best way to understand the level of engagement is, and what influences engagement, is to conduct an engagement survey. As we advise the public-sector organizations we conduct engagement surveys for, it’s important to generate survey data and drill down to the work-unit level. We can’t prescribe a solution without understanding what the condition is.

DG: Are remote workplace situations a barrier to engagement, or can remote workplaces be an opportunity to improve engagement? And, if so, how?

BL: There are clearly challenges to maintaining the engagement of employees working remotely. However, while it may be a cliché that the flip side of challenge is opportunity, I think this cliché applies today. Organizations that take care of remote employees can actually boost engagement. Taking care means:

Providing strong and visible leadership. Leaders need to continue to be visible, even if not in person. Leaders also should manage goals, results and outcomes, not just attendance and activities. And effective leaders understand that employees working remotely need to balance their work and personal lives. According to one government leader: “We’ve had to drastically change. People who have kids need to take an hour off to put someone down for a nap or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Leaders also communicate through multiple means (i.e., not just email or messaging), using telephone, web sites, blogs, intranet, Twitter, Facebook; and face-to-face communication platforms like Zoom, Teams, WebEx and Skype.

Continue to focus on training and development. It might be tempting to overlook employee development as we scramble to adapt to the COVID-19 workplace. But this would be a mistake. Managers, supervisors and employees should continue to focus on development, using options that don’t require in-person contact, including the explosion in online training.

Recognize accomplishments. Our Institute’s national survey has consistently found that a key driver of engagement is making sure that employees feel valued. This can be tough without physical proximity, but it’s important to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of employees working remotely, as well as the employees who continue to report to their work sites.

DG: Many people are suffering from “Zoom fatigue.” They’re just tired of communicating over the computer. Is there ever a danger of over-engagement?

BL: Over Zooming can be a problem, but is not the same as over-engaging. Our research, and the research of others, has shown that employee engagement is low, including in government. I don’t think we should worry about over-engagement, at least not yet.

But we should worry about over Zooming. As our Institute has emphasized, simply seeing employees at work, whether in person or via computer, is no guarantee that employees are being productive. In fact, too many video meetings may actually reduce productivity, Managers and supervisors need to move away from the need to simply see their employees at work. Instead, they should manage goals, products and outcomes; not activities, time and Zoom attendance. More focus on the former and less on the latter will improve productivity and minimize any Zoom fatigue. [Editor’s note: For more guidance on communication in a remote environment, read about Zoom Zombies, and/or register for The Performance Equation: Providing Feedback that Makes a DIfference.]

We’ll talk more with Mr. Lavigna about the latest trends in employee engagement in an upcoming FELTG Flash. [email protected]

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