In a new study examining why civil servants leave their jobs—or walk away from the federal government altogether—Partnership for Public Service (PPS) researchers offer us a reminder of how the working world continues to evolve.
“The future of work is changing, as employees who were remote during the pandemic return to the office or elect to stay virtual long term,” wrote the Partnership’s Maddie Powder and Paul Pietsch in a summary of the study, conducted with support from ServiceNow.
“In 2022, many employees in both the private and federal sector do not have the same workplace expectations, values or patterns as they did before COVID-19.”
Of course, many workers have recently shown that they are willing to leave their jobs in search of other employers who will meet those expectations; those offering the type of professional growth opportunities and, importantly, the type of flexibility they crave in their work.
The federal government should be paying close attention to how employees’ needs have changed, and what it will take to retain talent going forward, the authors wrote, noting that roughly 30% of the federal workforce will reach retirement age within the next two years, and that around 25% of public employees say they’re currently considering switching jobs.
What Workers Want and Why
For this study, PPS focused on issues affecting retention among Generation X—those born between 1965 and 1980—and Generation Z—workers born between 1997 and 2012—as public servants in these two groups “are at vital points in their careers and occupy critical positions in the federal workforce,” wrote Powder and Pietsch.
Indeed, it stands to reason that more Gen X civil servants are settling into senior roles, while those in Gen Z “are the future of the federal workforce and represent the next generation of public servants,” the authors noted.
And, as with their counterparts in the private sector, public sector workers of all ages have come to value flexibility more than ever before, consistent with prevailing research.
Not surprisingly, the Partnership’s study finds the same. This research, however, finds Gen X and Gen Z workers seeking out flexibility in their work for different reasons.
Many Gen Z employees, for instance, entered the workforce after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Pietsch recently told the Federal News Network.
“Working in a hybrid way, working remotely or working with workplace flexibility is baked into the equation,” said Pietsch, the senior manager for federal workforce research at the Partnership for Public Service.
“It is what’s usual, [and it’s] what they expect. That is the status quo. And if it ceases to be status quo, that could present challenges” from a retention standpoint.
“The young people we spoke with often described remote and hybrid work as an emblem of trust, of respect, that it showed that their leaders knew they could do the work, and could do it without in-person supervision on a daily basis,” he continued. “And they valued that. So, I think that’s something to keep in mind for leaders.”
Gen X workers, meanwhile, also said they valued flexible workplace policies, but many in this age group said that having more remote work and telework options has helped them better address family needs.
Applying Retention Strategies
Naturally, factors such as a federal employee’s agency, career field, gender, location and race can affect turnover rates. For example, the PPS research noted that Gen Z civil servants at the Department of Energy had a turnover rate of 5.5% in 2021, about half the average for all Gen Z civil servants. Turnover among civil servants at the Department of Commerce sat at 1.7% in the same timeframe, half the overall federal average for Gen X, according to PPS.
The variables that influence staff retention are bound to vary from employee to employee and agency to agency. In addition to stressing the importance of flexibility, Gen X and Gen Z workers in this study cited a handful of other reasons why they remain in government service, in addition to flexibility, such as financial incentives, facilitated growth, connection to the organization’s mission and an inclusive and supportive workplace culture.
To foster better retention, the PPS researchers suggested developing “targeted strategies that engage and empower their staff,” while adding that “few agencies have developed and implemented tailored retention plans.”
The authors cited the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as an exception, singling out the organization as “an example of a comprehensive approach to addressing retention.”
FEMA “not only uses the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, exit surveys, focus groups and spot surveys to collect information on the drivers of retention, but it also leverages technology to share the data on accessible digital dashboards and through quarterly presentations to agency leadership.”
Based on this data, and an analysis of Gen X and Gen Z employee types, FEMA determined the top three reasons Gen Xers left FEMA were personal or family-related issues, difficulties with their immediate supervisor and opportunities for advancement in another position, according to PPS.
Gen Z workers, on the other hand, were more likely to leave due to salary issues or the expiration of an appointment. “FEMA is retaining Gen X employees by providing more flexibility and Gen Z employees by making them aware of other opportunities available to them after their limited appointments expire,” according to PPS, adding that FEMA has also used the aforementioned data to create and update a retention toolkit designed to help supervisors, managers and the leadership team retain staff.
Ultimately, the authors concluded that, while differences exist in terms of what generations want most from work, employees overall are still motivated by many of the same things.
“Gen Xers and Gen Zers … value good communication with their leaders, respect within the office, a reliable and consistent workplace, supervisors who are accountable, opportunities to grow professionally,” Pietsch told Federal News Network, “and working with colleagues who are competent.”