How to Help Your Team be Productive Post Shutdown

Employee engagement was a problem before the shutdown. It’s likely to get worse.

A commonly-cited Gallup study about employee engagement validates what many of us see at work. In their “State of the Global Workplace” report, Gallup reports that only 15 percent of employees say they feel engaged. By definition, this means 85 percent of our co-workers are not emotionally invested in spending their time and talent to advance their organization’s mission. That vast majority is disengaged, not because employees don’t believe in the mission, but because they don’t think their work actually contributes to that mission.

We’d all like to think that our teams would perform better in this Gallup survey than the norm, but federal leaders can’t ignore the impact the shutdown has had on employee engagement. What do you imagine a lengthy shutdown—a period of forced disconnection—does to employee engagement once everyone is back at work? The answer lies in understanding what drove engagement on your team in the first place. The shutdown will have amplified any disconnect employees already felt.

Most federal employees run on the fuel of mission, appreciation, and stability. They chose their job over other private section options because they believe in their agency’s mission. They think of themselves as public servants first, and as lawyers, systems administrators, or communications directors second. When you strip that work away, as this shutdown has done, it becomes challenging for people to remember the value of their labor. Coming back to work after time away for any reason is always difficult and being furloughed can especially be a motivation killer.

When everyone is back in the office, federal leaders will likely see one of two things from their employees:

  • Employees who believe their program is generally on the right track, who know their role and feel personally effective, will be fired up. The shutdown drove them crazy. They worried about the work that went undone. They were chomping at the bit to get back at it.
  • Employees less sure about the direction of their program, who don’t understand their role or don’t feel effective, will return to work more frustrated, and probably angry. The pointlessness of it all drove them crazy. Instead of feeling hopeful, they look around and feel powerless.

So what can you do, as federal manager, to bring your staff together and increase engagement among those who may feel more disconnected and hopeless than before?

  1. Acknowledge employees’ feelings. Resist the urge to jump back into the work on Day 1. Offer employees an in-person or virtual opportunity to share their feelings, tell their shutdown stories and generally reconnect. Remind them that the shutdown is a political tool for policy negotiation and not a reflection of the importance of the agency or their role.
  2. Recognize that organizations with a mix of excepted and furloughed staff face a tough challenge. Federal workers in excepted roles have been working without pay for as long as their furloughed colleagues have been home without pay. Letting employees vent in a supportive environment will help them deal with feelings of uncertainty, lack of appreciation and anger. You might even ask them to share some lessons-learned about preparing for a future shutdown. This kind action-planning can help them feel empowered in an otherwise powerless situation.
  3. Draft a simple restart plan for your team’s workload. Any FY19 plans made in October and November at the start of the fiscal year need to be reevaluated. The timelines must be adjusted. This is the perfect opportunity to identify priorities and what can realistically be accomplished. Once your team is back at work, share your draft and engage them in making revisions so they feel included and their opinions heard.
  4. Review team assignments against this year’s priorities. Is everyone in the best role? If not, take time now to make adjustments that align people with work that matches their skills, abilities, and—to the extent possible—interests. Changing employee roles is often easier said than done, especially in federal programs. If someone can’t be moved, identify training opportunities they can take to upskill. People naturally feel more engaged when they know their job well and are good at it.
  5. Assign meaningful work. Meaningful work means activities with a direct impact on the program’s goals. It’s often work that will have some visibility outside of the program. Drawing that connection between tasks and their visible impact takes a little advance thought. Federal program managers see how all of the work is important and connected, but to employees it’s not always obvious. Managers can take a little time outlining the importance and mission-connection of each task as they assign it.
  6. Check in regularly. This is not a plug for micromanagement. It’s an opportunity to ask: “How’s that project going? Do you need anything from me? How can I help?” Just getting a “How are you?” and an offer for help makes people feel their work matters.
  7. Create an open forum for talking about engagement. What’s driving people, and what could be fixed? This might mean reserving time during the weekly staff meeting or project check-in, or it could be a quarterly session designated to talk about the dynamics in the office. Talking about what’s working and what could be improved helps federal managers understand trends, name the problem, and work with employees to come up with solutions.

Some federal employees will come back from the shutdown eager to dig in and make up for lost time, but many will be more disillusioned with their work than ever before. Managers need to help reconnect employees to the importance of their role and to foster re-engagement with the agency’s mission. Without these deliberate steps, the shutdown won’t be the only time lost. Productivity could suffer for months to come.

Laurie Axelrod is co-founder and CEO of Wheelhouse Group. Robin Camarote is an expert in organizational change management/workforce strategy and a practice lead at Wheelhouse Group. You can find their post-shutdown restart guide here.