US federal officials ‘less satisfied at work due to return to the office’

By on 05/05/2022 | Updated on 05/05/2022
The American flag set against the silhouettes of people
OPM has suggested the fall in engagement and satisfaction among feds is linked to the process of bringing government workers back to offices

US federal workers reported a dip in both job engagement and satisfaction according to the results of an annual survey, in what the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has put down to a departure from remote working.

The 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) showed employee engagement fell by one point, from 72% in 2020, to 71% last year. Meanwhile, the satisfaction index used to gauge staff morale dropped five points from 69% in 2020 to 64% last autumn, when the latest survey was conducted.

The employee engagement score is calculated using 15 questions in the survey across three headings – “leaders lead”, “supervisors”, and “intrinsic work experience” that are intended to provide insight into how engaged employees feel in their work, and therefore the positive qualities that follow, such as additional effort and persistence in their role.

The satisfaction index meanwhile measures employee satisfaction on four aspects related to their work: their job, pay, organisation, and whether they would recommend their organisation as a good place to work.

Overall survey response rates across federal agencies fell to 34%, decreasing 10 percentage points compared to 2020. This change was partly explained by the OPM by changes to the timings of the 2021 survey, which due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ran for a week less than usual.

“Due to the pandemic, survey administration in 2021 differed from 2020 in some substantial ways, making year-to-year figures less comparable,” Kiran Ahuja, director of OPM said.

Read more: Learn the lessons of COVID-19 remote working, says OPM as it publishes fresh guidance on telework

Remote possibilities

OPM suggested that the fall in engagement and job satisfaction scores were partly due to the survey having been taken while agencies were bringing federal workers back into traditional workspaces and deciding how best to implement flexible working conditions permanently as part of a hybrid working environment.

The report highlighted that the use of telework was “positively related to higher scores on employee engagement and global satisfaction and declines in telework could be linked to a decline in these scores”.

It also stated that managers and supervisors are learning to manage employees “working in
alternate and possibly changing locations”, adding: “Employees are facing a change in how many may have worked, with some transitioning from maximum telework to a mix of telework and onsite work. As agencies develop new hybrid working models and/or transition fully back to the physical workplace, all federal employees are in a learning mode.”

In November 2021, OPM published updated guidance on telework, urging agencies to make remote working a permanent feature of workforce policy.

The OPM acknowledged that the pandemic was “taking a toll on all aspects of everyone’s life” and Ahuja said that the pandemic showed federal employees were able to carry out their duties effectively from locations outside the office. She praised officials “resilience in the face of two years of unprecedented challenges”, including the use of creative solutions and workplace flexibilities to continue delivering results.

Read more: FEVS 2021: US federal employees were resilient during COVID-19 but concerns raised about service delivery

However, OPM stressed that teleworking did not amount to “an employee right or entitlement” and would be granted or denied at the discretion of agencies.

In February this year, OPM sent its top teleworking tips to human resource directors showing how to operate a performance management process in a hybrid work environment. This was shared after the release of president Joe Biden’s management agenda, which highlighted the administration’s goal of making federal government “a model employer” dedicated to employee engagement, learning, development, health, and wellbeing.

The latest FEVS results show that three quarters of federal employees believed senior leaders were committed to their health and safety. In response to a question about whether leaders had effectively communicated return-to-office plans, 62% of employees agreed.

Pay satisfaction plummets

The survey’s rating for pay satisfaction saw a six point fall year-on-year, from 67% in 2020 to 61% in 2021. This came after federal employees were awarded a 1% across-the-board pay rise last year, with no provision included to improve locality pay (which compensates federal employees based in more expensive areas) despite high inflation.

However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told agencies in February this year to plan for a 4.6% pay raise for federal employees in 2023. This marks the biggest federal pay increase since 2002.

Read more: US government publishes metrics for workforce reforms – and names officials responsible for them

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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