Better trained supervisors key to improving morale

Wednesday - 4/2/2014, 6:14am EDT

Jeri Buchholz on In Depth with Francis Rose.

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If frontline supervisors are the engine that runs agencies, chief human capital officers are trying to figure out what they can do to fine tune them to make the government run more smoothly.

Almost every CHCO and deputy CHCO who responded to Federal News Radio's exclusive survey said their agency is taking steps to improve the performance of their managers.

Across the board, improving employee communication and leadership were hands down the approach most said they were using to improve the morale of their workforce.

"From the top, creating a culture of engagement, in which all managers have the responsibility and the resources to improve engagement at the 'local' level, where it actually matters to people," wrote one respondent.

Another said, "We are executing an agencywide plan that outlines strategies for improving communications, improving leadership and enhancing employee development opportunities. Components are required to report results, and senior executives and their subordinate managers are held accountable for results."

A third said, "Improving supervisor/manager competencies; Employee Viewpoint Survey action planning; improving communications; increasing transparency."

Jeri Buchholz, the NASA CHCO, told Federal News Radio's In Depth with Francis Rose Tuesday that the frontline supervisors hold the key to making your agency a better place to work.

NASA, which is consistently rated as one of the top places to work in government by the Partnership for Public Service, has a program called NASA-First for high potential young leaders at the GS-11 or GS-12 level with at least one year of experience at the space agency.

"They go through a six month cohort program," she said. "Over the course of the last five or seven years that we've had these programs, we've now put almost 500 people through these programs. These are people who we have given the ability and competency to be model supervisors that we need for the agency."

Federal News Radio surveyed 54 federal CHCOs, deputy CHCOs and other senior level human resources managers and received a 30 percent response rate. All of the respondents were career employees, nine came from cabinet agencies, two came from large agencies and five came from small or independent agencies.

This is Federal News Radio's third annual CHCO survey.

The questions in the most recent survey ranged from employee morale to the impact of retirements on agencies to HR priorities in 2014 to the Office of Personnel Management's priorities, such as shared services, for this year.

The improving morale and succession planning received the highest average scores on the survey, while improving agency and union relations ranked the lowest priority for CHCOs.

Despite a rough last three years for federal employees with pay freezes, the government shutdown, early outs and buyouts, 78 percent of the respondents say morale at their agency is strong or OK, and 50 percent say morale is getting better.

Buchholz said morale has so many different pieces to it and NASA tries to focus only on those it can control.

"Over the last two years, we have really, really ratcheted up our game on workforce communication," she said. "We see that come back in a positive way, in a variety of ways, even very simple things like thank you notes during the shutdown for providing timely, effective communications to our workforce. Little things like that tell us that we are doing a good job in keeping people informed."

Buchholz said NASA works on issues related to morale every day, which is different from most other agencies.

Along with improving morale, NASA is trying to address many of the other top CHCO priorities.

Buchholz said NASA has a new culture strategy that breaks down initiatives into one of three buckets:

  • Connecting people to each other and to the mission, which means doing a lot of work with virtual collaboration and social media to help the workforce connect across the country.

  • Building model supervisors, which are the kind other supervisors aspire to be and everyone wants to work for.

  • Recognizing and reward innovative performance.

"That culture strategy has a lot of different components to it, and we approach activity in everything that we do trying to infuse that spirit of innovation throughout all of those activities at NASA," she said. "Succession planning, employee engagements are activities we engage in, in order to support that larger priority."

CHCOs who responded to the survey listed improving employee morale as one of the top areas OPM should take on as a priority as well.

But helping agencies improve human resources-related technology ranked the highest among OPM's priorities, with success planning and workforce training as the other two top rated priorities.

Three respondents recommended OPM focus on improving or even revamping the civil service system, including making it "a more agile federal HR system, discontinuing the position based HR system and moving the federal government towards a capabilities based HR system."

While CHCO respondents say improving the hiring process was one of the top three areas where they made the most progress over the last five years, 75 percent say they are finding good or great candidates to fill jobs.

Several cited veterans and other preferences as a barrier to finding the most qualified candidates.

And once the agencies get the best candidate, 73 percent of the respondents say they are able to retain their most valuable employees.

Most say telework and alternative work schedules are the most common way they are able to keep employees.

Buchholz said NASA moved away from the word "telework" and toward the concept of "work from anywhere."

"It's the idea of we are enabling and equipping people to work from anywhere," she said. "If you have not made substantial forward progress on that in the last few years, that is an absolutely open window of opportunity. You can focus your attention there and see some real significant games in employee engagement and morale."

One of the biggest surprises in the survey is the fact that 44 percent of the CHCOs say retirements are not affecting their agency much, while 44 percent said only somewhat.

But one respondent said the lack of succession planning is a big concern for the respondent's agency.

Another respondent said more generally about the state of HR in government, "I am concerned about the significant gaps in our employee pipeline. The federal workforce has been treated unfairly, and there have been deliberate efforts to undermine public service as a career destination for talented people wishing to make a difference through federal service. It has made our jobs more difficult than they had to be, and I fear that the ramifications will be felt for years to come."

Buchholz said she believes the wave of retirements has mostly washed through, at least at NASA.

She said there are considerably more employees under the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) than the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) at NASA.

Overall, CHCOs offered several general comments about the state of human resources in government.

"There are too many regulations, which tie the hands of the HR professionals. [We] need to streamline the regulations and functions; make things simpler and easier to follow," wrote on respondent.

Another said, "It will take legislation ... the current GS system does not work because half the workforce is no longer in it, and this has created an unequal workforce. The GS system is based on equal pay for equal work and because of the multiple systems AND because OPM no longer regulates the proper use of the GS pay grades, the GS system no longer works."

A third said, "The world of HR has changed over the last five to 10 years. There is a huge divide between the strategic and the transactional with the transactional always winning. Innovation is difficult without dedicated strategic support. But it can be done."

Buchholz also participated in a Federal News Radio online chat to further discuss these issues. Read an archived transcript of the chat.

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