It’s easy to imagine a year like 2020 troubling the Department of Homeland Security’s recent modest but steady progress in enhancing employee engagement. DHS has consistently improved since a low point in 2015, and its overall engagement scores on the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey improved by four points over the previous year. The progress accomplished in the last year, according to Bailey, is a result of DHS executives’ and supervisors’ efforts to maintain in touch with employees, provide them with as many tools and protective equipment as possible, and optimize telework and other workplace flexibility throughout the pandemic.
When current DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was the department’s deputy, leadership began to take a more hands-on approach. Bailey and the other top DHS officials sent out notes to the department’s 250,000 employees. The letters were more personal than the emails she and others had sent to DHS employees in the past. During the past year, the department increased its measures to give more resources to DHS personnel and their families and its efforts to keep engaged with staff. The emergency and backup child care systems established by the DHS before the pandemic and mindfulness training and other personnel tools established as part of the department’s employee and family preparation project were “Lifesavers” during the health crisis.
The department is developing new materials for DHS family members and will hold “Onboarding workshops” for new employees’ spouses and children. The idea, according to Bailey, is to help new DHS employees’ families better understand what the job entails and how it can affect their life at home. DHS is focusing on tying together its leadership development, diversity and inclusion, and employee engagement programs in the coming year, according to Bailey. In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security, like many other agencies, saw growth in employee telework, though not as dramatic as other departments. Before the pandemic, only 2% of the DHS staff teleworked on a daily basis. According to DHS’ 2020 FEVS, at least 47% of the department’s staff is unable to telework since their professions require them to be physically present.
The government is also looking into whether positions may be entirely virtual — and whether they can recruit from outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, perhaps from a lower-cost-of-living location. Those employees’ salaries may be lower, but DHS still needs to prepare for them to travel to their home offices on occasion, according to Bailey. If the department wants to have a chance at recruiting and retaining the best and brightest — and engaging them for the long haul — keeping these workplace flexibilities around is critical.
By: Emely Rivas