2020 FEVS: An Outlier or the New Normal?

by Robin Camarote, Wheelhouse Group

With the release of the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) data, agencies are asking what’s different and what more we can learn about this year that was unlike any other. The FEVS is an annual event. We can mark a point in time and reflect on what’s working and what’s not from the perspective of federal employees.

Given all we know about 2020, agencies are understandably asking both, “what can we do with this data?” and “what should we do with it?” What we’ll see in the 2020 FEVS data feels both important and like an outlier.

If we were to sum up the experience of working in government in 2020, one might note quick, sometimes awkward shifts to telework, the introduction of new resources and video collaboration tools (anyone up for another Zoom or Google Meet session?), and a general sense of uncertainty and anxiety that has hung around now for more than a year. In addition to the changes in how we work, employees faced challenges balancing home responsibilities with child and elder care – and many sought services through Employee Assistance Programs.

Employee engagement

In a year with so much change, agency leaders are eager to better understand how employees are doing, really.

How can agencies best use this information to continue to build a productive, engaged workforce?

Based on the results, it’s clear now is the time to keep your agency’s foot on the gas with employee engagement efforts. The 2020 FEVS data set contains important information that can be used to reimagine your agency’s environment for decades to come.

First, let’s look at what’s different this year. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) streamlined the questions down from the standard 71 to a relatively slim 38. While the question set was reduced, OPM kept questions tied to key indices that we all rely on year over year. For example, you can still observe trends in the Global Satisfaction Index and Employee Engagement Index.

But OPM also added new questions focused on assessing the pandemic’s impact on the federal workplace. Specifically, there are new background, telework, and program use questions. These are complemented by a set on the effects to productivity, customer service, and disruptions within the employee’s work environment resulting from child or elder care responsibilities.

What’s fascinating is that job satisfaction among respondents is up. While this figure has been generally increasing over the last four years, it landed at 71.6% in 2020. A majority (three quarters) shared that their senior leaders provided effective communication. Supervisors rose to the challenge. 85% indicated they felt supported in their efforts to stay healthy and safe.

With the generally good news and truly unique nature of this year, agencies might be inclined to take a “wait and see” approach – or not act at all. Some will view the 2020 FEVS data as an outlier. Data outliers are often dismissed because, by definition, they don’t fall on the trendline. We’re cautioned about reading too much into results until the situation normalizes.

However, dismissing 2020 as an outlier would be a missed opportunity to see a new trend forming real-time. Taking this last year’s results to heart and using this information to inform longer-term policy and practice changes will put agencies ahead in supporting employees.

Using the 90-day Jump Start approach outlined in this FEVS guide, agencies can focus on what matters most to their mission and employees. Then working together using FEVS data, we can be intentional and more targeted about what comes next. There will be no “back to normal.” Instead, agency leaders in collaboration with employees will need to define their own “back to new” or “back to better.” The 2020 FEVS data is an excellent source and guide to approaching those discussions and decisions in a thoughtful, informed way.

As our country and the world reopens, there may be some tendencies to get back to our pre-pandemic work arrangements. This year’s positive trends and insights gained on the impact of this massive shift in the way we work are important and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Robin Camarote

Robin Camarote
Engagement Lead, Wheelhouse Group

Robin Camarote has 22 years of experience in program and business management, change management, and stakeholder engagement and communications. She has completed strategic and process improvement plans for dozens of high-profile client initiatives including DevOps and technology insertion initiatives at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), IT Transformation and modernization at the Department of the Interior, and strategic planning and implementation at the National Park Service.