Slicing, dicing data gives agencies roadmap to better employee engagement

The Commerce Department laid out a roadmap to guide managers and employees.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development developed a scorecard and used videos to train and emphasize it.

The Social Security Administration and the State Department discussed their individual agency journeys in a series of online discussions.

All four of these departments and many others found different approaches to achieve the same goal: improve employee engagement.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) found for a sixth straight year in 2017 that employees are more engaged and overall satisfied with their work experience. Overall employee engagement topped 67 percent in 2017, a 2 percent bump over last year’s score of 65. The Obama administration had wanted to reach an engagement goal of 67 percent by 2016, yet agencies finally reached that mark one year later.

Julie Brill, the acting deputy associate director for the Senior Executive Service and Performance Management at the Office of Personnel Management, said these agency examples are but a few of the innovations that have emerged over the last decade.

Julie Brill is the acting deputy associate director for the Senior Executive Service and Performance Management at the Office of Personnel Management.

“Organizations have been emphasizing employee engagement, but if you are a manager, a leader or a supervisor and you want to improve employee engagement, what does that mean? OPM started by making it clear with a definition of employee engagement,” Brill said on the Courageous HR  show. “From there, we did some analyses of the FEVS results and those indicated its performance feedback, leadership, training, work-life balance, it’s not rocket science. But it helped those organizations who were developing action plans to hone in on the areas they could move that needle on.”

During the course of the rise of employee engagement, OPM also developed a series of tools, including the Unlocktalent.gov portal in 2014 with an interactive dashboard.

Brill said the nearly four-year-old tool has been instrumental in helping agencies find best practices and move the needle further to the right on employee engagement and other related areas such as morale and job satisfaction.

“The Unlocktalent.gov site has a community of practice, which has been very active. Agencies have provided various examples of things that they have done that have helped them make great strides in turning their FEVS results into effective action and then ultimately increasing employee engagement and organizational performance,” she said. “We’ve highlighted SSA and State through webinars that we’ve recorded and put on the community of practice where they have talked about their journey. The State Department took that strategic approach, did a thorough analysis, get to the why behind their data and develop action plans. They kept to the course of their action plan and checked in each year. They kept with that original action plan and used the data as an evaluation point to make sure they were doing the right thing or tweak it if necessary.”

But maybe the biggest thing OPM has done through Unlocktalent.gov, and FEVS more broadly, is to slice and dice the data in ways that make it more valuable and let agencies address root causes of problems geographically, by office and by job description. OPM also developed a data exploratory tool to help agencies dig deeper into the FEVS results.

“Technology is going to allow agencies to pull information from different systems and then make those connections,” Brill said. “You’d like to be able to connect them to your strategic goals and the metrics you are using to track that as well as critical human resources directly. What are the levers? You can do those kinds of big data analysis in terms of connecting all of those pieces.”

And with all of this data, agencies then are innovating in how they use it.

The National Institutes of Health, for example, developed a tool to help agency managers sift through piles of annual FEVS more quickly. The tool, which NIH analysts are handing out to other agencies for no charge, gives managers a better picture of employee engagement over the past year, and it can kick start an organization’s conversations about the results and ways to improve them sooner in the coming year.

Brill said her office is using the FEVS information to look at the SES more closely.

“A lot of the policy offices are looking at the cuts of the data that apply to their areas. We slice out how the SES are responding. What are they saying as will different policy offices,” she said. “The data is really powerful, especially as we are moving toward emphasizing making data-driven decisions, this is really extremely valuable. The team has worked hard to make sure they can get the data to the agencies as fast as possible.”

To keep the momentum going around employee engagement, Brill said there is more agencies can do, especially through growth of advanced technology capabilities.

She said a small number of agencies are using technology to support and improve the drivers of engagement such as performance feedback through things like more regular online surveys to gauge progress.

“The key to innovation is it starts at the top. Improving employee engagement requires the commitment of senior leaders and managers. If you are going to be innovative you have to have a senior leader that is going to support risks, innovation and collaboration to examine challenges, barriers and promising practices related to employee engagement,” Brill said. “It’s not a one-size fits all, but it really does start at the top. OPM also encourages agencies to be creative and step outside of the processes and systems that we’ve always used, but might not have had optimal results in the past.”

The challenge going forward is to keep the employee engagement scores moving in the right direction. The change of administration, new leadership with new priorities and budget uncertainty all become potential downward pressures on how employees feel about their jobs.

Brill said OPM recognizes all of the challenges employees face every day could impact employee satisfaction.

“One way to keep that moving forward is to make sure we are supporting our supervisors to make sure they are building those soft skills to lead organizations, to be able to understand an individual employee’s situation and apply work-life flexibilities appropriately, that they should be informed and support employee’s career development and have those ongoing conversations and provide that feedback,” she said. “We will continue to encourage agencies to focus on engagement improvement goals and we will provide support as agencies move forward.”