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The federal employee experience: How agencies can meet the needs of women workers amidst the Great Reevaluation

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For many women, the federal government historically has led the private sector in terms of job stability and family-friendly policies. But when COVID-19 upended the employee experience, the private sector rapidly pivoted to a wealth of flexible working options that appear here to stay. 

While the federal government likewise transitioned to a virtual workplace where possible, the pandemic peeled back the covers on a number of underlying cultural and other employee experience issues now threatening the federal government’s traditional competitive edge.

COVID-19 ignited a national conversation about the employee experience. In some industries, there has been talk about “The Great Resignation.” The federal government, however, might more appropriately call it “The Great Reevaluation”—a forced opportunity to reexamine how best to support its stressed-out workers through these particularly hard times and beyond. 

And it may wind up being a silver lining, especially for women in government.

According to Eagle Hill research, currently only 2/3 of women employed by the federal government (67 percent) agree they would stay at their agency if offered a comparable position elsewhere with similar pay and benefits (Figure 1). That’s a problem, as for more than a decade, the federal government has invested considerably in programs to retain and promote women in its workforce.

Figure 1. Women are less likely than men to say they would continue at their current agency if offered a comparable opportunity elsewhere. 

I would stay at my agency even if I were offered a comparable position elsewhere with similar pay and benefits.

Women are less likely than men to say they would continue at their current federal agency: bar graph

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Employee Experience Survey 2020

Aim for the target, not just the intention 

Our survey indicates the vision of a federal workforce in which women are fully represented and utilized remains an unrealized goal. President Biden’s June 2021 Executive Order emphasized the vision’s continued importance. That executive order renewed the federal government’s commitment to becoming a model employer and strengthening its ability to recruit, hire, develop, promote, and retain a diverse group of people while removing barriers to equal opportunity, creating respectful workplaces, and ensuring that women’s voices are heard.

To stay competitive for talent and mitigate burnout factors, the federal government needs to reassess and revamp how it meets the needs of its women in the workforce from the employee experience perspective. Eagle Hill’s experience shows that agencies can address these issues on their own; they need not wait for legislation or guidance to begin. At the agency level, giving new weight to flexibility, culture, mentorships, and team relationships will address employee experience issues most effectively. And it needs to happen now.

Federally employed women place greater emphasis than men on work culture pain points

Although similar numbers of women (59 percent) and men (56 percent) in the federal workforce say they feel burnt out at work, they emphasize different factors, according to Eagle Hill’s research. As shown in Figure 2, while men cite workload as the primary source of their burnout, women additionally point to lack of communication, feedback, and support as their top reasons. Moreover, women are more likely than men to cite lack of connection to colleagues and not feeling empowered as contributing factors to their burnout at work. In other words, the culture of the federal workplace, as well as the volume of the work, drives burnout for women.

Figure 2. Federal women and men experience burnout at work for different reasons.

What are the causes of you feeling burnout at work?

Federal women and men experience burnout at work for different reasons: bar graph

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Employee Experience Survey 2020

Federally employed women feel let down by the extent to which they feel included and supported by their agencies

In our survey, women also consistently express more dissatisfaction than men with how well their agency looks after their wellbeing at work. For example, only 30 percent of women (versus 41 percent of men) say their agency cares whether they have the right support to do their jobs well and 25 percent of women (versus 36 percent of men) say their agency cares about their interactions and relationships with team members (Figure 3).

While 62 percent of male employees believe their agency incorporates perspectives like theirs in day-to-day decision making, only 53 percent of women agree, nearly a 10-percentage point difference. Additionally, federal women workers in our survey were more likely than men to say that they do not have access to the training they need to do their jobs well (24 percent women versus 17 percent men); that they are not being mentored for success (56 percent women versus 49 percent men) and that they do not feel they belong (24 percent women versus 16 percent men).

Figure 3. Women federal workers feel considerably less sure than men that their agency cares about their wellbeing and ideas at work.

Does your agency demonstrate care and concern about the following?

Women show more dissatisfaction than men with how well their agency looks after their wellbeing at work: bar graph 

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Employee Experience Survey 2020

Taken together, these findings reveal a certain urgency in the Great Reevaluation happening in federal government now. As the federal government considers what lies beyond the COVID-19 era, it should grab the opportunity to reassess its employee value proposition, especially for its women workers. 

What will the federal government have to offer women going forward, and how will it make a convincing case? Eagle Hill has some suggestions 

Suggestion #1

Focus on improving connection through the workplace culture

While the agency sets the agenda, the local teams implement it. Therefore, it behooves federal agencies to take a much more thoughtful, prescriptive approach to how their workplace culture develops and supports strong teams at the lowest levels in the organization.

Right now, federal men workers feel a much greater sense of belonging at their agency than women (84 percent men versus 76 percent women). Rather than letting team dynamics evolve organically, agencies should seek to formally facilitate employees’ connections among their peers and the people in job levels above them. They also should seek to leverage collaboration technologies to level the playing field and encourage workplace participation and input at all levels, taking into account employees’ differing communications styles and preferences.

Suggestion #2

Double down on workplace flexibility to drive constituent value

In Eagle Hill’s survey, considerably more women than men federal workers (53 percent women versus 42 percent men) say the federal government has placed a higher priority overall on improving the customer experience than employee experience.

Eagle Hill research repeatedly has found that the employee experience drives the constituent experience. The additional damage that Covid did to the employee experience adds urgency to government elevating its focus in this area, especially for women.

Eagle Hill believes a strong federal employee experience will come from much greater tailoring to the individual in the future, including creating and fostering flexible work environments.
Overall, 68 percent of all respondents in our survey agree that teleworking has been a positive experience, with seven out of ten (71 percent) of women calling it positive.

Federal agencies have the chance now to capitalize on this momentum, beginning with changing the mindset around why people should come to the office. Face-to-face time allows team members to collaborate and connect in ways virtual cannot yet fully deliver. That should be the rationale for bringing employees into the workplace, not to keep watch over whether they are working. 

Flexible schedules matter as much as telework options do. Results from a Kaiser Family Foundation Women’s Health Survey released in March 2021 found that “Family caregiving responsibilities before and after the pandemic have largely fallen on women. More than one in ten women report they were caring for a family member who needed special assistance prior to the pandemic. Over one in ten women report that they have new caregiving responsibilities as a result of the pandemic.” 

Employees that deliver expected outcomes should have the freedom to work in ways that work for them.

Suggestion #3

Make performance management about feedback, development, and coaching

The problem with traditional performance management is that while performance is dynamic (especially when a world-changing phenomenon such as COVID-19 comes along), measurement is static. More agile (and more valuable) approaches to performance give employees more direction over their own destinies—with benefits for the employee and the agency alike. They feature ongoing conversations between employees and their supervisors about goals, expectations, and current challenges. They let managers and employees know when additional training may be necessary. However, supervisors will need proper training to manage, lead, and coach their teams in a manner that furthers the goals of dynamic performance management.

Eagle Hill’s survey also shows that federal men workers feel much more comfortable voicing contrary opinions at work without fear of negative consequences than women (79% versus 66%). Formalizing consistent, frequent communication between supervisors and those they manage has the added advantage of creating a safe environment for women workers to express their opinions and feel more included. 

Finally, it is past time for supervisors to retire the notion that “if I don’t see you, you must not be working.” As COVID-19 also showed, measuring inputs (time spent in the office) provides far less valuable information than measuring outcomes (results achieved, regardless of where and what time of day they happened).

Methodology

The Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Employee Experience Survey 2020 was conducted online by Greenwald Research in December 2020. The online survey included 509 respondents from federal employees across the United States.