Employee Engagement

The benefits of an engaged federal workforce also benefit the nation

By Rick Bell

Apr. 24, 2020

It should not be a surprise that the benefits of an engaged federal workforce reflect the same rewards as private-sector organizations that tout high engagement figures.

Successfully engaging employees offer outcomes including higher retention, increased innovation and productivity. Organizations with an engaged workforce also often see decreased absenteeism. It is also a strong predictor of both job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Despite the clear advantages when an organization commits to promoting employee engagement, annual engagement figures typically hover around 33 percent. Even with record low unemployment in 2018, a Gallup survey revealed that just 34 percent of American workers claimed to be engaged employees.

 Sense of Commitment Vs. Money

Yet studies show that federal employees often are driven more by a sense of commitment to public service than by financial incentives. Mika J. Cross, a federal workplace expert and vice president of employer engagement and strategic initiatives for job-search provider FlexJobs, said in a 2019 interview that there is a strong correlation between overall engagement and an employee’s propensity to stay in government. 

Mika J. Cross, federal employees, employee engagement, benefits of an engaged federal workforce
Mika J. Cross, VP-employer engagement and strategic initiatives, FlexJobs.

“Those who indicated they intended to stay are generally more engaged than their colleagues who aren’t,” said Cross in an interview with the Federal Employment Law Training Group.

Cross elaborated in a recent email interview with Workforce that there are tangible differences between federal employees and the private-sector workers.

“There is more flexibility with access and use of so many of the workforce collaboration tools and benefits that can help to foster higher levels of engagement,” Cross said of most private sector employers. “There is more variety and creativity in benefits and rewards/recognition tactics to acknowledge good work.”

A 2015 study by the Office of Personnel and Management — the federal agency that manages the government’s civilian workforce — provides insight into the benefits of an engaged federal workforce.

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Titled “Engaging the Federal Workforce: How to Do It and Prove It,” the 32-page report takes a deep look into variations in employee engagement.

Because federal employees often are motivated by a sense of altruism, a worker’s experience, as well as job security and better benefits, positively affects their engagement, the report notes. Yet the unpredictability of the federal government’s fiscal environment affected by factors including an economic slump such as the current coronavirus pandemic are beyond the federal employee’s and supervisor’s control. Budget uncertainty also has resulted in sequestration and furloughs.

“An organizational climate with these kinds of uncertainties has the potential to undermine employee engagement efforts,” the OPM report states. Therefore, when targeting the benefits of an engaged federal workforce, “it is essential to consider external factors in addition to those that may be influenced by leadership and the individual.”

Proactive Personnel Engagement

The study also takes into account individual differences that are likely to influence an employee’s tendencies toward engagement. Traits such as conscientiousness and proactive personality have been found to be related to engagement, the study notes. Individuals who exude initiative, perseverance and immersing themselves in their work demonstrate proactive personalities.

Cross reiterated in her 2019 interview the strong connection between overall engagement and an employee’s willingness to remain in government. 

“Those who indicated they intended to stay are generally more engaged than their colleagues who aren’t,” said Cross, a U.S. Army veteran known as the “Public Service Passionista” who frequently provides expert testimony on Capitol Hill and speaks at numerous conferences. 

Cross also told Workforce that engaging federal workers comes down to greater access and choice in workplace flexibility programs.

“Offer more variety of options in choosing flexible work schedule options, access to telework or remote work options and other supportive work/life resources,” she said. “Invest in the proper technology tools that increase efficiencies for accomplishing work, collaborating and communicating with customers, stakeholders and co-workers.”   

Supervisors can make a big difference in driving and promoting the benefits of an engaged federal workforce, Cross said in 2019.

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,” she said. “Overall, supervisors can directly impact employee dedication, sense of purpose and their attachment to their mission and the organization.”

Communication Remains Key

Frequent check-ins to understand their team’s personal and professional goals, listening and responding to how federal employees feel about their roles, and the work they do serving the American people should be part of regular conversations, she said.

Cross also offered tips that supervisors can implement to enhance the benefits of an engaged federal workforce.

  • Reinforce and explain the connection between an employee’s actions, workload, projects and activities to the organizational and business unit vision.
  • Redesign work to encourage more autonomy, creativity and innovation.
  • Enforce effective performance management practices that focus on early course correction, learning and growing and always striving 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 a federal agency a better place to work.
  • Encourage frequent and open communication with employees; model and reward appropriate co-worker relationships.

There also are some basic communication strategies to follow, Cross said. Reinforce good behavior and ask employees about incentives that would engage them in a meaningful way. 

“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,” she said.

“Additional flexibility in their work schedule or permission to telework more frequently; or 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.”

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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