Federal employee job satisfaction climbed during pandemic

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The Office of Personnel Management released governmentwide results from its annual employee survey on Monday, opening a window into views on their engagement and satisfaction at work, as well as insight on the shift to telework during the pandemic.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey was postponed twice last year because of the pandemic before rolling out in September. Its content also changed, with new sections on the pandemic added and the usual recurring sections streamlined. Overall, 624,800 feds from 82 agencies participated.

Overall, feds rated their experiences highly. The governmentwide global satisfaction went up four points to 69%. The overall employee engagement index, an average of three sections focused on employees' relationship with their supervisors, perception of agency leadership and work experience, went up to 72%, as compared to 68% in 2019. 

Dr. Kim Wells, the managing research psychologist at the survey analysis group at OPM, during a press briefing on the 2020 FEVS said she was "surprised" about the increases, given the pandemic.

Wells also spoke to the question of how positive ratings increased in the context of what was viewed by employee unions and advocates as rough treatment from the Trump administration on benefits, bargaining, pay and working conditions.

"I have to say, I did have the staff pull down the data again and clean it all over again," she said. "We did do a lot of digging around …. None of our items measure whether or not an employee feels that an administration liked them or not."

Wells added: "We have to stick with exactly the result we've got," she said. Federal employees "are very, very focused on the mission and doing work that we feel is meaningful and significant. And even if everything is horrible around that, to the extent that an employee actually feels that they're able to make that contribution, it'll still show up in positive scores on things like satisfaction. I think that's what we're seeing here."

Peak telework

During the peak of the pandemic, 59% of respondents said that they were mostly working from somewhere other than their agency worksite, as compared to 3% working away from the agency office before the pandemic.

"It's really hard to overstate what a sweeping change that is," Wells said.

That doesn't mean the pandemic didn't present difficulties as well. Twenty-three percent of respondents said that the pandemic was either extremely or very disruptive to their ability to do their work, and 48% said that their demands increased because of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, telework is generally tied to higher employee higher employee engagement and satisfaction, Wells said.

Some unions have emphasized their intentions to pursue telework-friendly policies in their bargaining agreements and on Capitol Hill. OPM itself has said that it's working on guidance for agencies on telework and remote work, and that it intends for to maintain some of the current flexibilities for agencies in this arena.

Poor performance and consequences

More feds than in years past said that issues of poor performance were being addressed in their agencies. For 2020, 42% of respondents said that steps are taken in regard to poor performers who can't or won't improve – up from 34% in 2019.

Almost half of feds said that poor performers in their unit usually stayed and continued to underperform.

Poor performance indicators are often telling of poor employee engagement, said Shelby Wagenseller, OPM press secretary. But officials noted that it's not clear whether the opinions of federal employees on performance reflect what's actually going on behind the scenes.

"In general, employees would not necessarily know exactly if there are steps being taken," Wells said. OPM is going to continue looking at the issues, especially given feds estimation of the level of poor performers that stay and don't improve, she said.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.


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