Mika Cross is a powerhouse.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to meet her—and if you’re in the work-life field, there’s an excellent chance you have—you’ll know exactly what I mean. A work-life professional who contributes her considerable talents to federal workplaces—most recently with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (she’s currently a President’s Management Council Fellow)—she has the energy and passion of half a dozen people combined.
I’ve seen her speak several times, and am always left wishing I could somehow bottle and distribute her enthusiasm. Which is why I decided to give her a call and find out more about what she does, and how she does it.
It turns out it’s no accident Cross works for the federal government. Its dedication to work-life, especially at the USDA, greatly appeals to her:
“When I joined USDA in 2010, what attracted me was the commitment to ensuring that our workplace was reflective of the American public we serve.”
The connection between work-life—especially flexibility—and diversity is not lost on her employer. As has been widely reported, one of the federal government’s greatest work-life efforts has been to promote telecommuting. The ability to work full-time remotely or simply do some portion of one’s work off-site is a boon to employers for several reasons, Cross says. For one thing, it blows the talent pool wide open, allowing employees from all over the country to apply for a job that can be done remotely. For another thing, it makes jobs more accessible to people with disabilities, including many veterans. And of course, employees who are set up to telecommute can ride out government shut-downs of any kind, whether stemming from a snowstorm or from political grandstanding.
Two out of three of these attributes promote diversity, and they also point to another feature of federal work-life programs: unlike in the private sector, it is not uncommon for government jobs to be advertised from the start as “eligible for telework and other work-life flexibility.” (Cross reports that some job ads actually include the line: “location will be determined upon selection.”)
Getting it done
Although flexibility is promoted across federal agencies, it is particularly noticeable at the USDA, where Cross has determinedly held the reins for over three years. (She’s currently “on loan” as a fellow at the Office of Personnel Management—more on that below.) For example, following the administration’s enactment of the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010, jobs at USDA went from 16% “telework-eligible” to 70%—in just one year.
Of course, “eligible” and “participating” are not the same thing, but here Cross has a good story to tell, too. In 2013, more than 26 percent of those eligible for teleworking at USDA were actually doing so on a regular basis. This is five percent higher than the government average, which, at 21 percent, is not too shabby either.
So, to what does she owe this success? To hear Cross talk, it comes down to three main things: support from the top, making it easy and getting the word out.
“At USDA we have very visible senior leaders at the highest levels who are willing to serve as role models and spokespersons.”
Over the years, she helped magnify this effect by showcasing work-life-friendly leaders a level or two down in the organization, and employees, as well, not only from within USDA but across federal agencies. (Another secret to Cross’s success is her insistence on casting a wide net: she happily shares information and practices both inside and outside of her organization, and encourages others to share, as well.)
“We used any medium we could to show examples and talk about what was working well and why: how did they overcome the trust issue, how did they deal with poor performers, technical glitches, and so on. We used webinars, training venues, employee newsletters, YouTube, our community of practice platforms internally—everything.”
This visibility went far in making it easy: managers and employees alike could find stories from peers that answered their questions and corrected their misconceptions. As a result, across a field of 100,000 employees posted nationwide, Cross insured as little energy as possible was wasted on reinventing wheels.
Shining a light on the stars
In 2012, at the start of National Work and Family Month (October), Cross instituted yet another promotional initiative. Employees across the USDA were invited to nominate their supervisors for a “Shining Star” recognition, honoring managers who supported work-life, health and wellness.
The stories poured in: There was the manager in a county office who answered the phone each day during lunchtime, so his team could take wellness walks. There was another who converted an electrical closet into a lactation room for a returning mom. And another who allowed a new young employee, who hadn’t yet accumulated much leave time, to move temporarily from his Washington, D.C. office to one close to his father, who had entered hospice care in Texas.
Cross received more than 100 “Shining Star” nominations right off the bat, and they continued to arrive, so she never quite shut down the competition. She started publishing the stories, two per month, in the department newsletter. Once published, they are archived, so employees and managers can (and do) get in touch after reading about each other in these stories, and informal work-life mentorships arise. Cross also plays matchmaker in this process. “If we find that a certain organization (within the USDA) is having systemic problems with, say, adopting flexible work schedules, I can look at my inventory of management mentors and connect people so they can talk to a peer, one on one.”
(If you’re thinking of adopting this idea in your organization, Cross offers one caution: her team always vets nominees through human resources to make sure the managers they’re holding up as role models don’t have any “personnel issues we should know about.”)
Spreading the word
While the work-life situation in USDA is truly impressive, the federal government is eager to spread the gospel across all its agencies, which is where Cross’s current fellowship at the OPM comes in. Her role is to be a resource to other agencies—not imposing any one work-life solution but sharing information and helping to customize best practices to meet the organization’s specific needs.
When I spoke to her this past July, she’d only been in her new role for a few months, but she’d already worked with a number of organizations and implemented a wildly popular webinar series. For the series, she brought in work-life experts from both within and outside of the federal government to talk about research, trends, best practices and so on. To her delight, over 6,000 federal employees registered for the sessions (“I’ve never seen a webinar that packed before,” she says). Afterwards, of course, she ensured the webinars were archived and they’re now available on demand. And since she was able to persuade the various experts to donate their time, the webinars cost the government virtually nothing to run.
Happily, Cross’s amazing record as a work-life crusader has not gone unnoticed. Just this past summer, she received two coveted awards: She was one of only four people to win a 2014 Causey Award, which recognizes federal employees who have “gone above and beyond in the human resources arena to help the government operate better” and she won a Next Gen Public Service Award for superior public service and achievement. The latter recognition is given in six different categories; Cross took the “Silent Hero” award, recognizing “a public service leader who has operated behind the scenes, silently working in a dedicated and committed fashion, without the limelight, who has laid the foundation for stellar public service results and community change at the local, national, or international level.”
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