How leaders can prepare for federal employees to return to work after the shutdown

January 15, 2019

By Sally Jewell

It’s hard not to dwell on the hardships the partial government shutdown is creating for federal employees, but this shutdown won’t last forever. At some point soon, we all hope, the budget appropriations stalemate will end, and federal employees will return to their jobs the next day.  

That’s why government leaders need to prepare now to welcome back their workforce. Your employees will quickly return to business as usual, but they won’t forget how they felt throughout this forced hiatus. 

As secretary of the Department of the Interior during the 2013 shutdown, I learned some important lessons about how to mitigate a drop in workforce morale when employees return to work.

1. Be a visible leader.  
When the shutdown ends, you will have plenty of work to do. But don’t shut yourself off in your office. The day the Interior Department reopened in 2013, I stood at the front door of our building and greeted employees as they came through. That simple act helped me understand how the shutdown had impacted employees and how to provide support. 

2. Tailor your welcome-back message and address different segments of your workforce separately. 
Not all your employees will experience the shutdown the same way. As the head of a large agency, much of my workforce was furloughed, yet wanted to work, and some worked without pay under significant stress. It didn’t make sense to send a single one-size-fits-all-message to everyone. I addressed the law enforcement folks separately, for instance, because they had worked throughout the shutdown without receiving a paycheck and were on the front lines of a public backlash. Whether your team is large or small, make sure to take the time to listen to how employees experienced the shutdown differently and adjust your message to reflect your understanding of their experience.

3. Reassure your employees that their work is important. 
Being deemed “nonessential” is demoralizing—it’s as if your work has no value or impact. Your employees may feel this way during the shutdown, and those sentiments may linger when they return. Reinforce the importance of employees’ work by listening to them, knocking down as many barriers as possible to help them catch up, and standing up for them when they face criticism.  

Sally Jewell is the former secretary of the Department of the Interior, former president and CEO of REI and a member of the Partnership’s Government Leadership Advisory Council.