How to get your federal agency up and running again

Vice President Joe Biden, right, greets Environmental Protection Agency workers as they return to work after 16 days of a government shutdown at the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building in Washington on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013.  Thousands of furloughed federal workers returned to work across the country Thursday after 16 days off the job due to the partial government shutdown.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Vice President Joe Biden, right, greets Environmental Protection Agency workers as they return to work after 16 days of a government shutdown on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Government is open again and it’s business as usual. Well, maybe not so fast.

Yes, furloughed federal employees have returned after a 16-day shutdown, rejoined those who remained on the job and have rolled up their sleeves in the hope of making up for lost time as quickly as possible.

But it is unrealistic to assume everything will be back at full speed from the get-go. It just doesn’t work that way. Many employees are discouraged and perhaps even bitter about the experience, and the backlog of work in many cases may be overwhelming.

A number of government leaders made a good start by offering generous words of encouragement and support as employees returned to work on October 17. President Obama led the way, using his post-shutdown speech to single out “all the dedicated and patriotic federal workers who've either worked without pay or been forced off the job without pay these past few weeks.”

“Thank you. Thanks for your service. Welcome back. What you do is important. It matters,” the president said.

Cabinet secretaries greeted employees at the front door on reopening day and sent emails and messages on Twitter. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy assured employees she intended to make their return as “smooth and painless as possible,” while Education Secretary Arne Duncan tweeted, “It's great to have our team back! I appreciate their public service and critical work on behalf of our nation's students and educators.”

All of this is a morale booster for the beleaguered federal workforce, but now the hard day-to-day work must begin in earnest as employees seek to get through the long list of items that need to be addressed.

As managers, you must make sure that steady progress takes place while also having a calm, patient and realistic view of what your employees are facing, the stress involved and what can be accomplished in a given timeframe.

That means setting clear priorities, making adjustments, providing guidance and offering both moral support and extra help when needed. Let employees know that you're aware it may take a while to dig out and that it is okay. Try to keep work expectations reasonable.

At the same time, ask for and act on employee suggestions for ways to best deal with the huge workload and other disruptions caused by the shutdown.

Keep in mind that everything won’t go smoothly or as quickly as you might want. It never does.

As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a memo to his employees, “We've been away for some time now, so please don’t expect that we can return to normalcy in a day or two or even a week. I really encourage each of you to take a little time each hour to check on your co-workers and offer encouragement and comfort where necessary.  We are one team - the best team in government - and we're at our absolute best when we take time to take care of each other!”

That’s good advice. And there are other steps you can take.

Managers and supervisors need to touch base with employees one on one. Most employees will be fine, but a few may be having trouble coping—either because of issues outside the office such as finances or child care arrangements, or because some resentment has built up over the last few weeks. Managers should be alert to employees who may need a little extra help. Consider referring them to your agency’s Employee Assistance Program.

Every organization has customers, whether internal or external, and it will be important to explain to these customers that it may take a while to return to full speed and that their patience will be appreciated. That may help reduce some pressure on employees providing the service.

Also be sure to let employees know that, to the best of your ability, you will keep them informed about what’s coming down the road. They’ve just gotten through a wreck and they need to know that someone is keeping an eye on the road ahead so that they can focus on their jobs.

Please share your post-shutdown experiences 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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Managing a 'victimized' federal workforce after the shutdown