10 steps agency leaders can take to re-engage federal employees when they return to work
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10 steps agency leaders can take to re-engage federal employees when they return to work

January 25, 2019 | Updated on December 1, 2021

With a tentative deal reached to reopen the federal government, it will be critical for agency leaders to connect with their employees, 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. Heads of agencies and those down the chain of command will have to re-recruit and re-engage the workforce and help them set priorities to tackle the huge backlog of work.  

Here are 10 ways federal leaders can repair the damage done by the partial shutdown and create a positive and productive work environment. 

  1. Make employees feel truly welcome. Senior leaders should be at the entrance greeting employees the first day government reopens. Welcome them back to work and listen to what they have to say as they enter the building. Visible leaders will go a long way to showing employees that they are cared for. Also consider having senior leaders write thank-you notes during the first week and walk around to staff members’ offices and ask, “What do you need?” 
  2. Prioritize building clean-up. Make sure the trash has been emptied, refrigerators have been cleaned out and work spaces are tidy. The way employees view their work space has a direct effect on how they view their jobs. Ensuring a clean environment will help reinforce how well leaders understand their employees’ needs and concerns. 
  3. Get computers up and running. Returning to work after 35 days away will be difficult enough for employees without having to deal with technology-related issues. Leaders need to ensure employees can reintegrate into their work as seamlessly as possible, and if they can’t access their emails or files, this will magnify their frustrations. 
  4. Have answers to HR and employee assistance questions ready. During the shutdown, staff members will deal with the repercussions of missed paychecks. Upon returning to work, they will have questions about payment, insurance, reimbursements and more—make sure HR staff are ready to assist. 
  5. Provide frontline supervisors with talking points. On the first day back, managers will be responsible for fielding employee concerns, whether they’re tangible questions about payment or intangible concerns over feeling overlooked and underappreciated. The better prepared supervisors are, the better employees will feel. 
  6. Plan for attrition. The shutdown will have negative consequences. One of those will be a larger than average number of employees resigning or retiring. Agencies need a plan to deal with this, both from a morale standpoint and from a work distribution perspective. The workforce will quickly become aware of high attrition rates, and supervisors need to be prepared to answer their questions. 
  7. Rethink the “annual cycle.” Attempting to force a business-as-usual approach after the shutdown will lead to even more disruptions. Rather than adhering to pre-established check-ins and reporting time frames, determine new schedules that work better for employees.  
  8. Empower managers to say, “I don’t know, but I will share more information with you soon.” Yes, supervisors need to be prepared with talking points. But they won’t have all the answers to every question they’ll receive. Rather than improvising off-the-cuff responses, supervisors should be encouraged to tell their staffs when they don’t know the answers to their questions—so long as they quickly follow up and discover the information the employee needs. 
  9. Get employee input. Use the shutdown 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 difficult, it could present the opportunity to make needed changes in the organization once things settle down. 
  10. Return to the mission, without adding more work. Federal employees will be grateful to return to work because they care about contributing to the mission of their offices, their agencies and government as a whole. But their appetite for additional assignments, especially as they scramble to get back up to speed, will be lower. Be sure to recognize and highlight the importance of their work without adding any undue stress. 

For more guidance, download our Ready to Reopen checklist.

Download the Checklist

Max Stier is the president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service.