Archuleta looks to 'forge a new pathway' to better engage federal workforce

Tuesday - 11/12/2013, 4:44pm EST

Just a week into the job and confronted with signs of the sagging morale of the federal workforce, new Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta said she wants to take steps to make sure federal employees remain engaged in their work.

"The stresses that our federal workers face are ones that we need to pay attention to," Archuleta said Tuesday at the annual public meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, which focused on ways to boost employee engagement. "As we move forward, I know that we need to not only talk about it among ourselves. but also we need to engage our employees in those discussions. We need to be sure that they're part of the solution as well."

As OPM director, Archuleta chairs the council, which is made up of CHCOs and deputy CHCOs from more than two dozen agencies and departments.

"I want to forge a new pathway forward," Archuleta said. "I really want to think about ways that we can improve our workplace. I want to be able to be sure that we're thinking about the work-life stresses that our employees have that are first and foremost among our minds."

Agency CHCOs use survey to drive improvements

Employee engagement is a timely issue for both agencies and employees. OPM released its annual Employee Viewpoint Survey last week, revealing continuing declines in federal employees' overall job satisfaction and a sharp drop in satisfaction with their pay.

Still, according to the survey, federal employees, by and large, continue to feel engaged in their work. For example, 96 percent of respondents said they are willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done, and 90 percent of employees said the work they do is important and are constantly looking for ways to do their jobs better.

"Despite all the turmoil that our workforce has been through ... employee engagement and commitment has held pretty steady," OPM Deputy Chief of Staff Justin Johnson told the agency CHCOs.

Johnson said he hopes agency managers use the survey not only as a barometer of employee sentiment but as a multidimensional management tool.

Agency CHCOs at the council meeting said they're doing just that: seizing on areas where the survey results indicate trouble spots and turning to their employees for ways they can make improvements.

Heidi Sheaffer, CHCO for the the Department of Health and Human Services, said her office conducts employee focus groups around low-performing areas and asks employees both what they, themselves, can do to improve scores in a particular area and what managers and leadership can do.

"We received a lot of interesting feedback, and the employees really felt more engaged to make a change — that they were accountable for their own careers and their own success and making their organizations a better place to work," Sheaffer said.

OPM uncovers 'hidden' successes

Angela Bailey, OPM's CHCO, said her agency also holds focus groups based on the survey results, but with a slight twist.

"Instead of looking at the lowest scores and how to improve them, we actually went and looked at where we are the best of the best throughout OPM," Bailey said. "And then we held a forum for all of our managers where they could see some of these really incredibly successful practices that were hidden and going on all throughout OPM and shared them with all the managers so that that started to spread."

Another innovative approach OPM took was to conduct "stay interviews," — similar to a exit interview for departing employees — to query managers on why they remain in their positions.

Managers were asked questions such as, "In the mornings, what makes you hit your snooze button multiple times?"

"And what was interesting is, almost to a person, the leadership said 'The commute,'" Bailey said. "They didn't say it was about the work."

Based on the interviews, OPM looked at different telework arrangements and expanding flexible work hours to remedy employees' frustrations, Bailey said.

In their efforts to drive workforce improvements however, agencies are faced with factors largely outside their control, such as a governmentwide three-year pay freeze and across-the-board sequestration budget cuts.

For example, just 44 percent of respondents in the most recent survey said they have sufficient resources, such as staffing and funding, to get the job done.

"We were always one of these agencies that scored very, very high, and we've seen, because of the external environment, scores dropping — not precipitously, but enough to cause us concern," said Miriam Cohen, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's CHCO. NRC perennially places among top-ranked small agencies in the survey.