FedSmith.com recently ran a survey in which users were asked for their suggestions on improving the federal work experience (see Tapping a Valuable Resource: The Federal Workforce for the introduction that went along with the original survey).
One of the questions asked was, “What changes would you recommend (aside from pay increases) to make your agency a better place to work?” The need for pay increases is the lowest of the low hanging fruit and would have dominated the responses.
Out of the over 200 responses we received, the most prominent common thread reflected in at least a third of them is a need for managers to stop micromanaging. Respondents are looking for more autonomy to do their jobs. They want to be trusted to do their jobs.
In the private sector, increased autonomy – empowerment – evolved starting in the 1990s after companies delayered. To reduce bureaucracy, companies eliminated layers of management and that meant managers had more employees to supervise. Their intent was to reduce costs but with the increased span of control managers could no longer rely on close control.
Empowerment was the result. It revolutionized supervisor-subordinate relationships. Now many employees rarely see their ‘manager’. Companies now have a very different work environment than two or three decades ago.
It’s likely all employers will feel the pressure to reduce close supervision from Millennial workers who have grown up in homes with working parents and where they functioned largely on their own. That’s of course true with video games and using computers.
A number of respondents argued managers were too often biased or discriminatory. Several mentioned favoritism. A couple referred to the “old boy network”. They found that demoralizing. A survey of employees would help to pin point where these problems occur.
They want to see poor performers terminated or at least moved to jobs where they do not impede the performance of their work group. That’s also demoralizing.
The flip side of that is the importance of recognizing employee contributions. A couple of respondents asked simply to be thanked occasionally for their efforts. The OPM survey confirms that is one of the most prevalent weaknesses in the way employees are supervised. And it’s obviously a simple problem to solve.
One of the obvious problems with federal employment broadly is the continued reliance on failed performance management practices. These are failed because everyone knows performance ratings are inflated and therefore not valid. Poor performers can go for years with unjustified acceptable ratings. And the failure to focus on and recognize the truly outstanding employees undermines their commitment. There is no rationale that excuses that failure. Its poorly planned systems combined with a failure to hold managers accountable.
A growing practice in the private sector is the role of calibration committees composed of peer level managers. They review performance ratings and recommendations for salary increases, bonuses etc. Managers are expected to explain and justify their decisions. That would be important for any ratings that an employee’s performance is unacceptable. The practice insures greater fairness, enhances the recognition value of the decisions, and makes managers more broadly aware of employee capabilities.
There was a concern articulated by several respondents that jobs need to be filled. Continued, heavy workloads create job stress and if that continues for an extended period, it can trigger health problems.
A related thread is the value of increased use of flexible schedules, compressed schedules and telecommuting to provide for better work/life balance.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has created a website, – the Center for Organizational Excellence to make available information “to enhance the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues.” The website discusses five categories of psychologically healthy workplace practices that are strikingly similar to responses to the survey: (1) Employee involvement in decision making. (2) Work-life balance, (3) Employee growth and development, (4) Health and safety, and (5) Employee recognition. They list a number of practices related to those categories that could be adopted for minimal cost.
In its discussion of healthy organizations they add effective communications as a sixth category that pervades each of the other five. My consulting experience has convinced me that four additional factors are important in government agencies: Trust, Shared accountability, Social connections at work, and Confidence in leaders. They are a good framework for focus group discussions to identify problems. Together ten ten factors are important to organizational health and to creating a good place to work.
The APA cites research that shows psychologically healthy organization are more successful; employees perform at higher levels. That is solidly consistent with the performance of the companies selected as “best places to work.” Agencies should create a task force to consider the practices.