Research shows that attention to employee engagement doesn't just mean happier employees, it also means better performance.

When the 2007 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings were released, the U.S. Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) had a score of 18 out of 100. This placed FLRA in the unenviable position of being ranked dead last among the 31 small agencies included in that year's rankings. In fact, the 2007 FLRA score still has the dubious distinction of being the lowest score ever recorded in Best Places.

The scores and rankings are based on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). At that time, I was involved in creating these rankings for the Partnership for Public Service. When we calculated the 2007 FLRA score, we were shocked at how low the score was. In fact, I called an FLRA contact to discuss the score. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Did we miscalculate your score? We can't believe it's so low—the lowest we've ever seen."

FLRA: "No, you got it right. This place is a mess."

In 2009, the score wasn't much better—19.5.

Fast forward to 2015. FLRA's score of 85.2 ranked it number three among 28 small agencies. This dramatic improvement began in 2010, when FLRA's score rose from 19.5 to 68.3, the largest single-year increase since PPS began publishing the rankings in 2003.

Clearly, the FLRA story is unique. However, the story of how FLRA accomplished this improvement contains lessons for other organizations striving to move the needle of employee engagement.

Learning From FLRA

In 2009, Carol Waller Pope was appointed as the chair of the FLRA, the federal agency that promotes stable, constructive federal labor-management relations by resolving and preventing labor disputes. Pope was the first FLRA career employee to be given a presidential appointment as chair. She quickly realized that she needed to pay attention to a demoralized workforce that had lost its connection to both the FLRA mission and its customers.

A key part of Pope's message to the staff was, "what you do matters and you are valued." According to Sarah Spooner, the FLRA executive director, 2009 was designated the "year of the employee." Now, according to Spooner, "every year is the year of the employee" at FLRA.

But the changes went beyond slogans. Communication was enhanced, including reinstituting all-staff town hall meetings, which hadn't been conducted in 20 years. Pope also conducted listening tours to help her understand what FLRA employees were thinking and feeling.

There also was increased transparency throughout the organization on issues such as budget and performance. Managers became involved in key decisions and employee work groups were formed to review and improve processes. FLRA collaboratively developed a new strategic plan that focused on the critical role that FLRA's staff plays in achieving mission success. New employee recognition programs were instituted. FLRA human resources, which had been contracted out, was brought back in-house so HR staff could know and connect with employees.

The renewed focus on the FLRA workforce and its mission produced results. By 2012, FLRA had reduced its pending case inventory by 90 percent, entirely eliminated overage cases, and reduced the average age of cases from 250 to 50 days. The agency has sustained that performance, in concert with its rise in the rankings from the worst small agency to work in government. In 2016, the FLRA engagement score on the FEVS places it near the top among small agencies.

Why Engagement Matters

Recently, after I gave a presentation on employee engagement, the CEO of a county government commented that he'd heard a lot about engagement but hadn't realized that there is "science" about engagement. Well, there is. Decades of research, including in the public sector, have empirically revealed the link between engagement and organizational performance.

Research on private sector organizations has focused on how engagement drives financial performance. However, the research also reveals that engagement is linked to outcomes that are important in the public sector, like achieving strategic goals, stimulating innovation, delivering more responsive customer service, retaining employees, building employee pride, improving attendance, and keeping workplaces safe.

Research by the International Public Management Association for Human Resources revealed that engaged public sector employees are:

  • four times more likely to stay in their current jobs
  • five times more likely to recommend their workplaces to others
  • five times more likely to be very satisfied.

That's why it is important to view improving engagement as much more than a human resources activity. It's about creating a culture. And, as the FLRA experience illustrates, it requires leadership and strategy.

Room for Improvement

Despite the business case for engagement that has been evolving over decades, the level of employee engagement is not high in many public and private sector organizations. Based on the 2016 FEVS results, OPM calculated an overall engagement score of 65 percent across the entire federal government. Although this is a one-percentage-point increase from 2015, the results show that more than one of every three federal employees is not fully engaged. Moreover, there is great variability across the federal government, with agency engagement index scores as low as 45 percent. Other organizations that analyze employee engagement, such as Gallup, have reported even lower engagement scores across multiple public and private sector organizations.

These results mean that there is room for improving employee engagement—and therefore improving performance. While many state and local government agencies individually administer engagement surveys, federal agencies have a head start because of the OPM FEVS data and the Partnership for Public Services Best Places scores and rankings. Further, both OPM and PPS have refined their data and reporting to provide federal agencies with increasingly specific and actionable data.

Of course, the real key to improving engagement is taking action on survey results. Organizations that act on these results do improve engagement and performance. Organizations that fail to act can actually experience a decline in engagement.

One large city, for example, compared the engagement scores from departments that acted on survey results to the scores of departments that had not acted. The results? The engagement scores for the departments that did take action were 50 percentage points higher than those that did not act.

Improving Engagement

I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to improving engagement. This is true in the federal government, the nation's largest and most diversified employer, and also for state and local governments. It's hard to imagine any single solution that would apply across the 90,000 or so jurisdictions in local government.

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However, it is instructive to understand what public sector organizations have done to act on survey data and improve the level of engagement. Below are eight factors that have been shown to influence engagement. I provide more detail on each in in my book Engaging Government Employees.

Leadership

The FLRA story illustrates the impact of leaders who are committed to improving engagement. Each time PPS has produced Best Places since 2003, leadership has been the number one driver of the rankings, both government-wide and for individual agencies. This category reflects employees' views on their supervisors, fairness, empowerment, and senior leaders.

Strategy

Successful engagement efforts also result from making engagement a strategic priority, as FLRA did. At the University of Wisconsin, engagement and inclusion are directly linked to a key university strategic priority—to attract and retain talent. The city of Minneapolis has a tag line, "The city that works," which means "engaged and talented employees reflect our community, have the resources they need to succeed, and are empowered to improve our efficiency and effectiveness."

Performance Management

When the Merit Systems Protection Board analyzed high-engagement and low-engagement federal agencies to identify what differentiated the high from the low agencies, performance management was the single biggest differentiator. This has been confirmed by both OPM and the Government Accountability Office. Specifically, leaders in high-engagement agencies do the following better than those in low-engagement agencies:

  • Make sure employees know what is expected and how their work links to the agency mission.
  • Meet regularly with employees.
  • Provide employees with opportunities to grow and develop.
  • Conduct at least semiannual discussions about performance, strengths, and developmental needs.
  • Hold employees accountable, including dealing with poor performers.

Recognition

This can be a powerful driver of engagement. And it doesn't have to be financial. The University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, which conducts annual engagement surveys, distributed a recognition toolkit that includes "ways to recognize employees without spending a dime." Suggestions include:

  • a simple thank you
  • a handwritten note sent to the employee's home
  • a direct compliment in earshot of others
  • a peer recognition award
  • an employee-of-the-month award
  • a supervisor-of-the-month award
  • simply asking for an employee's opinion.

Having a Say

Employees want to know that their opinions count when it comes to how their work units operate. Responding to this need can range from supervisors simply asking for input from their staffs, to more comprehensive strategies. One government agency, for example, encourages all employees to submit suggestions online. The agency then allows employees to vote on each suggestion. Ideas that receive 150 votes automatically go to senior leadership for an implementation decision. It's the 21st-century version of the employee suggestion box.

Work-Life Balance

Employees with flexible work arrangements are typically more engaged than employees who don't have these options. To many, "flexible work arrangements" means telework, but this is not the only way to help employees achieve balance. Other options include flexible work schedules and reporting times, part-time work, job sharing, dependent care support, leave banks, and wellness programs. It's also important for managers to understand that employee wellness is multifaceted and includes not just physical wellness, but emotional, spiritual, financial, and other dimensions. Employees need opportunities to pursue wellness in all areas.

Onboarding

Organizations only get one chance to make a good first impression. When the employee is ready for the job, the job needs to be ready for the employee. Research shows that good onboarding translates into high engagement. The Partnership for Public Service, in conjunction with Booz Allen Hamilton, developed a five-phase onboarding process that begins when the new employee accepts the job offer (before actually reporting) and extends throughout the new hire's first year. This model includes a comprehensive set of activities to ensure that the new hire receives the support, resources, and information needed to succeed.

Building a Culture of Engagement

To sustain high engagement, it must become part of the organization's DNA. The Conference Board has developed a definition of what it means to create a culture of engagement. A culture of engagement, according to the Conference Board, is a set of accepted organizational values, behaviors, and practices that promotes increasing levels of engagement as a cultural norm.

Creating this kind of culture can enable an agency or jurisdiction to sustain employee engagement, particularly when top leadership changes, as will happen in January for the federal government and many state and local jurisdictions.

While there is science around employee engagement, there isn't a silver bullet to improve engagement. Instead it takes "silver buckshot"—an integrated set of actions based on employee survey data. But the payoff—improved performance—is worth the effort.


Defining Engagement

There are many definitions of engagement. Here is how the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) defines it:

Engaged employees have pride in their organization and mission and are deeply committed to its success. They believe that the organization values them and, in return, are willing to provide "discretionary effort," going above basic job requirements to enable organization to succeed.


An Engagement Culture

According to the Conference Board, these are some of the characteristics of organizations with an engagement culture:

  • The engagement business case is broadly understood.
  • Engagement is measured regularly—and results are acted on.
  • Leaders and managers work together to improve engagement.
  • Engagement is linked to the organization's mission and key business outcomes.
  • Engagement efforts are visible across the organization.
  • HR components are linked to engagement (that is, the organization hires, rewards, advances, and trains on engagement).
  • Communication, particularly from senior leaders, is frequent and robust.


ATD Resources

Measuring the Success of Employee Engagement (ATD Book)

The Manager's Employee Engagement Toolbox (ATD Book)

"Essentials of Driving Results Through Employee Engagement" (ATD Education Program)

"The Remaking of the FLRA" (TPM Article)