What federal managers should do when the shutdown ends

October 11, 2013
(The Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)

When the government shutdown eventually ends, furloughed employees and those who remained on the job will be eager to get their paychecks and make up for the lost time and the backlog of work.

But the return to “normalcy” will require federal leaders to soothe hard feelings and help the entire staff cope with the many large and small problems caused by the disruption.

It is critical for the heads of agencies and those down the chain of command to connect with their employees, and to remind them of the importance of the mission, the critical nature of their work and the value they have to the organization and our country.

Federal leaders will have to re-recruit and reengage the workforce. This will not change the reality of the political gridlock that led to the shutdown, ward off future crises or end the three-year pay freeze and budget cuts that affect the work, but it will focus and energize employees.

To get started on repairing the damage done by the shutdown, here are some tips for how leaders can create a positive and productive work environment:

Be there at the front door. The first day back on the job, the agency head should hold a “welcome back” town hall to emphasize the organization’s mission and to outline priorities for the year ahead. Top leaders should greet employees at the door when they return, and supervisors at different levels should hold team meetings. You should also send messages telling employees they were missed and appreciated, and that it’s good to have them back. Be sure to focus on the full workforce—those who haven’t been furloughed may be overlooked and shouldn’t be. Some will feel it is unfair that they had to work when others didn’t.

Get back to the mission, but don't add to it. The mission is why public servants are in government, and this may be the worst part of the shutdown—that people have been precluded from helping. The most recent "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" rankings show that 90 percent of federal employees feel their work is important. While you want to get operations up and running at full speed, avoid adding much new mission to the equation. Many political appointees were not furloughed and have been spending the time thinking about new ideas. There is a great deal on everyone’s plate already, and it would not be wise to swamp your workforce.

Help cut through the red tape. Employees will face numerous challenges when they return, so helping them overcome these will be vital. The backlog of work will require establishing priorities, goals and timeframes. Employees will need guidance. At the same time, pay attention to the small issues that help people do their jobs. For example, be sure that the information technology help desk is fully prepared to quickly fix any nagging problems that might slow down productivity.

Deal just as effectively with their personal matters. Missed paychecks and the possibility of no back pay for those furloughed may be causing financial hardships for some employees. If needed, managers should be prepared to write a form letter to banks, lenders and creditors explaining the furlough and requesting special consideration for employees who, through no fault of their own, may be unable to make payments. Agencies could also establish a temporary hotline that employees can call with questions concerning their pay and benefits.

Get employee input. Use this crisis as an opportunity to solicit ideas from employees on how to handle the immediate and pressing needs, as well as to remove barriers more broadly that will increase productivity. Although the shutdown has been traumatic, it could present the opportunity to make needed changes in the organization once things settle down.

Address the image problem. The shutdown certainly has affected the morale of federal workers. The message to potential employees also has not been positive, especially for the younger generation contemplating public service. Even though new hiring is at a minimum, don’t lose sight of the need to rebrand your agency and engage in strategic and continuous outreach to the talent market, including colleges and universities.

While the future is uncertain, federal leaders can learn from the current experience to be better prepared the next time a disruption occurs. This might mean creating or improving your contingency communications plans for employees and the public. It could also mean conferring with other agency leaders to gather best practices and see how they handled a variety issues, such determining who should be furloughed and who should remain on the job.

What advice do you have on how federal leaders can re-recruit their workforce? Please share your ideas in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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