Here’s how to keep your employees engaged in their jobs

GAO study constructive and standardized performance reviews, more employee involvement go a long way toward engaging workers

What matters most in improving employee engagement levels--defined as the sense of purpose and commitment employees feel toward their employer and its mission— is valuing employees, that is, an authentic focus on their performance, career development, and inclusion and involvement in decisions affecting their work. The key is identifying what practices to implement and how to implement them.

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Those thoughts were but a few found in a report on employee engagement from the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office this week which took a look at how private- and public-sector organizations increased levels of engagement to see what can lead to better organizational performance.

The GAO was asked to review recent trends in federal employee engagement and steps its Office of Personnel Management but the findings are relevant to all manner of public and private companies.

Here are a few of the more interesting findings from the GAO:

Constructive performance conversations: Having constructive performance conversations was the strongest driver of the government’s Employee Engagement Index. For the study question “My supervisor provides me with constructive suggestions to improve my job performance,” we found that, controlling for other factors, someone who answered “strongly agree” on that question would have, on average, an engagement score that was more than 20 percentage points higher than someone who answered “strongly disagree.” Candid and constructive feedback helps individuals maximize their contribution and potential for understanding and realizing the goals and objectives of an organization.

Career development and training: Our analysis found that career development and training was the second strongest driver. For the question, “I am given a real opportunity to improve my skills in my organization,” we found that, controlling for other factors, someone who answered “strongly agree” to that question would have, on average, an engagement score that was 16 percentage points higher than someone who answered “strongly disagree. ”The essential aim of training and development programs is to assist an agency in achieving its mission and goals by improving individual and, ultimately, organizational performance.

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Work-life balance: Federal Trade Commission officials implemented an outreach strategy to inform staff about child and elder care resources after learning that employees were not aware of the services or did not know that they qualified for these services. Officials said employee knowledge of and agency commitment to these kinds of programs enhances supervisor support for work-life balance. Similarly, to support work-life balance, the Department of Education revised telework policies, provided training for managers and employees on the new polices and on working in a telework environment, and improved infrastructure to make telework as effective as time spent in the office, according to Education officials.

Inclusive work environment: The FTC established an agency-wide Diversity Council to develop comprehensive strategies to promote understanding and opportunity throughout FTC. FTC officials said that employees of all levels were interested in forming such a council. This included employees who experienced firsthand the diversity issues as well as managers who could address those issues. The goal of FTC’s Diversity Council—composed of representatives from each bureau and office—is to engage employees and supervisors across the agency, make recommendations for improving diversity, and foster the professional development of all agency employees, according to these officials.

Employee involvement: The Education Department’s Office of General Counsel has a permanent employee-driven Workforce Improvement Team (WIT) that grew out of an office-wide meeting with employees. As a result of this group’s work, Education’s OGC management introduced additional training and professional development opportunities and improved new employee training through a new handbook and mentoring program. Education’s OGC officials said that the staff-driven WIT has created feelings of stronger ownership, engagement, and influence in office decision-making. Education’s OGC officials said that OGC’s management seeks feedback from staff, including from the WIT, to evaluate the effectiveness of improvement

Communication from management: National Credit Union Administration NCUA officials told the GAO that the head of the agency and its senior leaders communicate with line employees (who are mostly in the field) through quarterly webinar meetings. The meetings are scheduled to accommodate the field employees’ frequent travel schedule and generally start with any “hot topics” and continue with discussion of agency efforts to meet mission goals. The agency head takes questions in advance and during the webinar and, when needed, participants research and share responses with agency employees. According to NCUA officials, these regular, substantive conversations demonstrate top leadership’s commitment and respect for all employees as valued business partners.

Top leadership involvement: Officials from all of our case study agencies said that top agency leaders were directly involved in organizational improvement efforts. The GAO said it has previously reported top leadership that is clearly and personally leading the change presents stability and provides an identifiable source for employees to rally around and helps the process/efforts stay the course.

Consistency: Officials at Education said it is important to ensure that policies are applied consistently, which is the goal of that office’s Speaking with One Voice initiative. The biweekly management meetings to discuss and clarify the implementation of department policies (e.g.,telework, resources, and employee bonuses) were instituted after conversations with employees revealed that policies were inconsistently applied. As a result of the initiative, Education’s OCIO officials said employees know that senior leaders are paying attention to how policies affect employees and are accountable for ensuring appropriate implementation.

Line of sight: FTC officials emphasized the importance of creating a line of sight between the agency’s mission and the work of each employee. Successful organizations create a “line of sight” showing how team, unit, and individual performance can contribute to overall organizational results. FTC officials said that the agency lists every employee that contributed to a case in the pleadings, from the attorneys and paralegals to the information technology specialists who provided computer support. Officials said that legal actions are the culmination of the efforts of many employees, both mission and mission-support staff, and including their names on pleadings helps create a line of sight from each employee’s contribution to the organization’s success.

Some other suggestions from the GAO report included:

  • Quarterly all-staff meetings with the Secretary to discuss various topics.
  • A “lunches with leaders” program allowed agency employees more access, input, and participation in key topics discussed by senior agency leaders.
  • A redesigned performance appraisal system to simplify and standardize performance rating levels to more clearly reflect performance expectations, and consistently recognize and reward successful performers within principal offices and across the agency.
  • Periodic leadership summits to provide agency leaders with developmental activities identified by staff that are focused on teams, individual leadership, and problem resolution.
  • An Education Policy Briefing Series to provide agency employees with an opportunity to learn about cutting-edge education issues that relate to the goals and work of the agency and to provide a forum for staff to interact and share expertise.

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