The Department of Transportation moved up from fifth place in 2019 to third in 2020 among 17 large agencies in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® rankings, registering an employee engagement score of 76.1 out of 100. This is 7.1 points higher than the government as a whole.
The heightened level of employee engagement occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as department leaders increased communication with the workforce and built on what DOT officials said has been a long-standing effort to listen and respond to employee concerns.
“When the pandemic hit, we all went to maximum telework and we saw a substantial communication increase from leadership,” said Anne Audet, the deputy director in DOT’s Office of Human Resource Management. “We started getting almost weekly notices focusing on different areas. That kind of communication from top leadership was really appreciated.”
Audet said there were regular emails and video sessions on telework guidance, on what DOT was doing to keep employees safe and specific information on COVID-19 related health and safety issues for the workforce.
In addition, Audet said departmental leaders highlighted and thanked employees working on the front lines who kept the transportation systems open and safe, including the air traffic controllers and safety inspectors.
“And there were multiple and regular COVID 19 meetings and workgroups involving a wide spectrum of employees engaged with industry, other agencies and local and state governments to make sure that communication was ongoing and robust,” Audet said.
Assistant Secretary for Management Phil McNamara noted that operating in the virtual environment helped managers at headquarters in Washington to be more responsive to employees in the field. He said that “virtual office hours allowed managers and supervisors to be there for their employees.”
DOT also took other steps to engage employees. For example, the department transitioned its in-person awards ceremonies to a virtual setting, held a virtual Combined Federal Campaign event and placed an increased focus on health and wellness activities. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration created special videos for those receiving length of service awards, while the Federal Aviation Administration held virtual town halls, produced weekly videos on various topics and even held virtual Jeopardy game with questions and categories.
“We found a lot of creativity during the pandemic and people started doing fun things that they maybe wouldn’t be willing to do in person,” Audet said.
In addition to improving its overall ranking among large agencies, the DOT received high marks in a new, separate workplace category that specifically measured employee views on the support they received during the pandemic. DOT ranked second in the COVID response category among large agencies with a score of 90.9 out of 100, 4.8 points higher than the government-wide score.
In addition to issues related to the pandemic, Audet said the department in 2020 launched the Office of Innovation and Engagement that is responsible for developing and sharing ideas to improve employee engagement, collaboration and improved DOT operations. The new office builds on a decade-long initiative known as IdeaHub that solicited and sought to implement employee suggestions to enhance DOT’s work.
She noted that part of the ongoing DOT strategy also involves requiring executives to include employee engagement initiatives in their performance plans, and ensuring they are held accountable for following through with their plans.
“We’ve been emphasizing engagement for over 10 years,” Audet said. “We’ve continually worked on this effort, but every few years you have to relook at what you’re doing.”
Out of DOT’s 11 subcomponents, five improved their Best Places to Work rankings. The Federal Highway Administration placed 61 out of 411 subcomponents and earned a score of 82.2. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration achieved the biggest increase in the rankings among DOT agencies, improving by 146 spots from 299th place to 153 and a score of 74.2. DOT’s largest subcomponent, the FAA, went up 67 places in the subcomponent rankings with a score of 76.2. and a ranking of 119.
The Federal Railroad Administration, however, dropped 150 spots in the subcomponent rankings to 206th place and registered a score of 71.9. The Maritime Administration experienced a decline of 102 spots with a ranking of 228 and a score of 70.8.
McNamara said communication and engagement will continue as employees begin to transition back to the workplace.
“Secretary Pete Buttigieg held a virtual employee town hall on his very first full day in office,” McNamara said. “Over the next few weeks, he talked to every one of our agencies. He’s been very intentional about having his leadership team do the same.”
As a follow up, McNamara said the department has been holding listening sessions and soliciting employee views through surveys about returning to the office and the future of work.
“You have to listen to what employees are saying and act,” McNamara said.
This profile was written by Partnership for Public Service staff member Monica Wilder