Federal Agencies Offer Tips for Engaging Workers

Offices deemed ‘best places to work’ revamped teleworking, manager training

By Dana Wilkie Jan 27, 2014
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Six years ago the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was buried under a backlog of patent applications, with few resources to ease the burden. After it revised its teleworking policies, the office slashed that backlog significantly. ​

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had long been known as a place that employed the most talented of scientists, but not necessarily the best supervisors. Thanks to a new, yearlong training program for managers, that’s changing.

These changes are among the reasons that both federal agencies recently took top spots on the list of “2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” and they offer lessons for private companies seeking to inspire and motivate employees. 

The Patent Office, for example, is now ranked as the No. 1 subcomponent of a federal agency—out of 300—in the annual survey of federal workplaces conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, which advocates for a more effective federal government, in part by engaging its workers. One reason the Patent Office rose to the top is that it’s become a role model for successful teleworking. 

When Patent Office Director David Kappos first took the helm, in 2009 (he has since left), he heard that workers believed that some of the teleworking rules didn’t make much sense. For instance, employees who typically worked from home were scheduled to come into the office one day a week for face time but not much else. Because the Patent Office had been deliberately built to save money, with fewer desks than employees and a “hoteling” arrangement that required they reserve desks when they were onsite, several employees found the requirement arbitrary and irksome. 

“Many days they would put up with the commute, come in and be told, ‘OK, now that you’re here, go find a place and get work done,’ ” recalled John M. Palguta, a vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service who spent more than three decades in the federal government. “They’d say, ‘Well, I was getting work done at home.’ There was a long history of management resisting teleworking, thinking that if employees were at home, they’d be sitting in their bunny slippers watching TV and not getting work done. The mindset was that you couldn’t manage employees that you couldn’t see, which is not accurate. Just because they’re sitting at their desk doesn’t mean they’re getting work done.” 

Kappos told supervisors they should require employees to come into the office only for necessities like staff meetings. 

Without the money to hire more patent examiners to reduce the pileup of patent applications, Kappos knew he had to improve employee productivity, and that meant boosting employee morale, Palguta said. To that end, the director started awarding financial bonuses to examiners who closed more than the standard number of cases each week. 

Teleworking helped some of them do that, Palguta said, because “if I’m commuting two hours but can instead put that two hours into applications, I can work more and get that bonus. That gave employees control over some of their income.”

In four years the office slashed its application backlog by 20 percent, according to Palguta. 

However, a study by University of Richmond authors, published in the spring of 2013, suggests that the Patent Office may have lowered its standards, approving many patents that would have been rejected under George W. Bush’s administration. 

Great Scientists, Not-so-Great Managers

Because NASA has 17,500 employees, as many as 35,000 contractors and 10 centers spread from Texas to Virginia, it can be hard for employees to feel connected to one another and their mission. Hence, the space agency began fine-tuning its virtual technology, starting with an October 2012 summit among executives, some of whom weren’t sold on virtual communication, said Jeri Buchholz, NASA’s chief human capital officer. 

It was during that summit, which originally had virtual and in-person components, that Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, shutting down three NASA centers and giving those executives a firsthand look at how virtual technology could keep workers connected as the executives sat at home in front of their laptops and IPads. Summit-goers were able to watch the agency’s administrator speak via an Adobe Connect tool and could participate in chat rooms, a question board and instant polls. 

“We were all housebound because the whole Eastern Seaboard was shut down, but we were all gathered together,” Buchholz said. “It was very personal, and I think that surprised people.” 

NASA had another managerial challenge: The skills that make its employees such extraordinary scientists and engineers don’t necessarily make them good supervisors. 

“We’d hear that these folks were really good at their work, but as supervisors, they weren’t very good at dealing with employees,” Palguta said. “There was a lack of clear direction, a lack of a sense of mission, [managers] failing to take time with people, little training and developing of subordinates, little patience for people who needed someone to walk them through a process.” 

To change the situation, NASA has launched a 14-month, five-module training program for supervisors. The goals are to help managers understand how employees perceive them; give them insight into their values, passions, motivations and stress-handling techniques; and offer coaching on relationships with employees. 

The space agency is also becoming more selective about its supervisors, taking care to reward talented scientists in other ways if it appears they wouldn’t thrive in managerial roles. 

“First-line supervisors impact the daily lives of more than two-thirds of our workforce, and they have a huge impact on our employees,” noted Jeffrey Frank, a human resources specialist at NASA. “If someone’s value is their technical capability, they should be rewarded for that and not forced to take a supervisory job just to get a financial promotion.” 

In the Partnership for Public Service’s December 2013 survey, NASA came in first among large federal agencies. 

Easing Transition for New Workers 

The Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) jumped in the rankings from 202 out of 231 in 2009 to 88 out of 300 in 2013.

The boost can be attributed, in part, to the agency’s creating 16 committees with employee volunteers, each led by a top executive, to address a range of topics. The feedback from those committees has led to a revised telework policy; a new career-paths Web page depicting career tracks for auditors; improved mentoring and coaching programs; a new emphasis on nonmonetary awards; revised leadership training and training processes, and a revamped onboarding process.

The reworked onboarding process was key, Palguta said, because in recent years a new hire would appear and find that supervisors had poorly prepared for her arrival. 

“In some cases folks might spend the first week with little to do because someone forgot to notify their supervisor they were showing up,” he said. “They didn’t have computer access, or passwords were missing, or they had no workstation. There were some real horror stories.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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