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Don’t Divorce Yourself from Employee Engagement

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Tue Aug 16 2016

Don’t Divorce Yourself from Employee Engagement
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With collective sighs of “Seriously??!!” my colleagues and I stood staring at the odd pattern of human-sized rectangles on the office wall. It was a few years into my federal career, and my team and I were moving a mismatched set of bookcases and cabinets in a conference room in order to make more efficient use of the space. 

As we relocated the furniture, we were surprised to see that the workers who had painted the room several years earlier had merely painted around the furniture, rather than going the extra mile to move the furniture and paint behind it. What’s more, because the bookcases and cabinets were of different widths and heights, the silhouette the painters had inadvertently created bore an odd resemblance to the Manhattan skyline. 

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In thinking about it now, it was my first exposure to employee engagement—or in this case, the lack of it. Engaged employees tend to have a heightened connection to their work. They find personal meaning and pride in what they do, and they are committed to the organization, the mission, and their job, and are more likely to put forth extra effort to get the job done. Put another way, if a talented workforce is the engine of productivity and mission accomplishment in an organization, then a culture of engagement is the fuel that helps power that engine. 

As federal supervisors, managers, and leaders, we need to focus on strengthening employee engagement. For one thing, a growing body of research on both private- and public-sector organizations has found that increased levels of engagement lead to better organizational performance such as higher productivity and lower turnover and absenteeism. Strong employee engagement can also help agencies weather tough times and uncertainty. 

In 2015, OPM’s Employee Engagement Index (EEI) stood at 64 percent government­wide, a 1-percentage point increase from the previous year. The EEI is a composite model comprised of employees’ perceptions of their agency’s leadership, supervisors, and intrinsic work experience, and is derived from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. 

This high-level number is just the tip of the iceberg, however, and the more interesting stories come to light as the data become more granular. For example, NASA, OMB, and FTC led the larger agencies with engagement scores of 78 percent, while DHS, SBA, and Veterans Affairs had the lowest engagement levels at 53 percent, 60 percent, and 61 percent, respectively. (Check out www.unlocktalent.gov/employee-engagement for data down to the team level).   

The Government Accountability Office analyzed the EEI in 2015 and identified 6 key drivers of federal employee engagement:

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  1. Constructive Performance Conversations: Supervisors should provide staff with constructive suggestions to improve their performance.

  2. Career Development and Training: Employees should be given opportunities to improve their skills.

  3. Work-Life Balance: Agencies should support efforts to balance work with other life issues.

  4. Inclusive Work Environment: Supervisors should work well with employees of different backgrounds.

  5. Employee Involvement: Employees should be involved in decisions that affect their work.

  6. Communication from Management: Management should communicate to employees what’s going on in the agency.

Collectively, what matters most in improving engagement levels is valuing employees. While this should not be surprising, the challenge comes in ensuring the consistent support from top leadership and their personal involvement. Another obstacle is ensuring that supervisors are selected on the basis of their interpersonal abilities as much as their technical skills. 

Finally, leaders need to recognize that engagement is not just about increasing next year’s EEI scores. Rather, it’s about embedding effective management principles into the daily fabric of an organization. 

For a deeper dive into this topic, join me September 7 at the Government Workforce Conference.

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