Return-to-office plans a major cause for decline in 2021 Best Places to Work results

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Uncertainty over the future of work and the transition back to the office permeated the results of this year’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings.

Employee engagement and satisfaction dropped to a score of 64.5 out of 100 in the 2021 Best Places to Work rankings, which the Partnership for Public Service released on June 13. That’s a decrease of 4.5 points since 2020.

The 2021 Best Places to Work rankings, compiled by the Partnership and the Boston Consulting Group, are based on the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers FEVS annually, reported that employee engagement dropped from 72% to 71% and employee satisfaction declined from 69% to 64% between 2020 and 2021.

There is a clear contrast this year compared with 2020, back when many federal employees were working remotely because of the pandemic. OPM emphasized the shortened and delayed timeline for the 2021 FEVS as part of the reason behind the decline in engagement and satisfaction, and the Partnership added that the drop is largely due to agencies’ office reentry plans. Employees completed the governmentwide survey during November and December 2021, aligning with the timeline of a host of agencies announcing return-to-office policies. Many other feds, though, continued to perform full in-person work throughout the pandemic.

“Public servants are on the front lines of every major challenge facing our country and securing the organizational support they need to be successful is in the nation’s best interest,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said in a statement. “The 2021 Best Places to Work findings make clear that ensuring flexibility for employees and providing them with the support they need to do their jobs is key to improving the experience of the federal workforce.”

Many federal workers showed support for agency leaders’ actions during the pandemic, with a score of 85.2 out of 100 for positive answers to questions related to COVID-19. But when it comes to plans for returning to the office, the positive score was at just 63 points.

The lower score for employee feedback on office reentry reflects concerns about effective communication regarding future plans and employee safety, the Partnership said in a statement.

Notably, when the survey was distributed in November 2021, 36.2% of federal employees were fully teleworking, compared with 47.3% just a few months previously.

In 2021, many agencies faced declines in employee engagement and satisfaction, the Partnership reported, including at most large agencies.

The Department of Transportation fell by 8.1 points, and dropped from third down to seventh in the rankings for large agencies.

The Justice Department dropped 8 points, down to 59.2 out of 100, and fell from 13th to 16th in the large agency rankings.

The Department of Homeland Security maintained its spot as the lowest ranking large agency for 2021, with its satisfaction score out of 100 dropping from 61.1 in 2020 to 56.5 in 2021.

The Federal Trade Commission fell from its number two spot and a score of 89.1 in 2020, down to 22nd place for midsize agency rankings and a positivity score of 64.9. That’s the FTC’s lowest-ever score.

NASA continued its streak of at least a decade as the top-ranked large agency, but its score dropped by 1.5 points in 2021, coming in at 85.1 out of 100.

A handful of agencies, though, reported improvements for their employee engagement scores in 2021.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was the only large agency to receive an improved score in 2021, with a slight increase of 0.2 points in 2021 — now up to a score of 70.2 out of 100. The agency also moved from the eighth up to the fifth spot in the large agency rankings.

The Government Accountability Office and National Science Foundation, ranked first and second for midsize agencies respectively, both showed score improvements between 2020 and 2021.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has received a lot of union pushback over its return-to-office plans, saw a nearly four-point improvement between 2020 and 2021, and jumped from 13th place up to seventh place for midsize agencies.

The National Endowment for the Humanities was the most improved small agency in 2021, moving from 25th place and a score of 64.4 out of 100 in 2020, to second place and a score of 84.9 in 2021 for satisfaction and engagement. That’s an over 20-point jump and a record-high score for the agency.

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This year, the Partnership also compared federal employee satisfaction with that of the private sector workforce. Although there were similar return-to-office challenges between the two sectors, private sector employee engagement and satisfaction was at a score of 79.1 out of 100, which is 14.6 points higher than the federal government rankings, according to data from the employee research firm Mercer.

The Partnership for Public Service will discuss the “Best Places to Work” results at an awards ceremony on the morning of June 13. You can see a full list of the 2021 Best Places to Work rankings here.

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