The COVID-19 pandemic added to the workload for nearly half of federal employees and was highly disruptive to almost a quarter, but those employees still felt very satisfied and supported in their jobs, according to results of the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey released by the Office of Personnel Management April 26.

“The federal workforce is made up of dedicated and hardworking individuals who are motivated by the opportunity to make a positive impact through their public service,” said OPM acting Director Kathleen McGettigan in a news release.

“Despite the unprecedented workplace challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, federal workers adapted quickly to their new realities, continuing to work on behalf of the American people, taking on additional and sometimes new work to ensure critical services have been available to the public.”

Overall employee engagement scores rose 4 percent between 2019 and 2020, with an 80 percent satisfaction with supervisors driving the peak of that success.

That positive relationship with supervisors even transcends changes in administration and top-level agency leadership, which only received a 62 percent engagement score.

“Most of the time, supervisors are going to be career employees and they go across administrations,” said Kim Wells, manager of OPM Survey Analysis, on a press call.

“You’ll probably have the same supervisor for years and years across different organizations, and a lot of what we’re seeing here [is] the relationship with the supervisor really conditions an employee’s experience in the workplace.”

Among the top positive responses for the survey were in areas of supervisors treating employees with respect, supporting work-life balance, committing to a representative workforce and supporting employee development.

Employees were also very satisfied with how their work related to agency goals and with their work-unit’s ability to accomplish those goals.

According to Wells, that satisfaction, even as workloads went up during the pandemic, indicates a workforce that is deeply proud of the mission they fulfil to help the American people in the midst of an international health crisis.

“We saw, what I considered at the time, a surprising increase in things like job satisfaction. These increases maybe seem a little incongruent in the context of the time. After all, we were in a pandemic,” said Wells.

“Maybe one of the things we’re seeing here is something around the values of the federal workforce. One of the things that the federal workforce really wants to do is make sure that we’re contributing in a meaningful way to society. That’s one of the things that draws people to work in public service.”

Employee satisfaction at the Department of Health and Human Services, which was central to the COVID-19 response, saw a 2 percent increase in satisfaction, building on steadily increasing employee satisfaction over the past few years.

“HHS has really had an opportunity to shine,” said Wells. “Federal employees come to work to make a difference, and boy they’ve really been given an opportunity to make a difference.”

NASA’s consistently high scores among large agencies also exemplify this principle, as the “cool” factor of supporting space exploration has driven employees with a strong sense of value for their work.

Even some of the survey’s lowest-ranked items improved in 2020, such as how well differences in performance are recognized in the work unit, going from 39 percent positive to 51 percent positive, a difference that Wells theorized may have come from the survey being conducted in September, when performance appraisals are also taking place.

Those scores of employee perception around performance management may also not paint the whole picture about the actual actions of performance management.

“What OPM has found is that poor performance often reveals a failure to properly engage the employee. We understand the importance of supporting agencies with their performance management guidance,” said Shelby Wagenseller, OPM press secretary, on the call.

“Because of employee confidentiality, employees don’t necessarily know when performance-related actions are taken against their colleagues.”

Those findings about engaging employees to improve performance also support the nominee for OPM director, Kiran Ahuja, in her plan to focus on supporting managers and providing performance management guidance to improve those scores.

Wells also noted that such questions tend to have a high number of neutral responses, meaning that the question is ambiguous or the employee does not have any positive or negative insights on how poor performers are addressed at their organizations.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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