We the Partnership

Three tips to work through turbulent times

October 6, 2020

By Michael Lawyer

Federal employees will soon review the performance plans they wrote almost a year ago. It is a safe bet that almost none of those plans mentioned the coronavirus pandemic.

This isn’t the first time our government has confronted a new and unexpected challenge. Our nation has experienced disruptions before – pandemics, recessions, wars and natural disasters are not new to us. Our government endures because dedicated civil servants manage uncertainty, keep important services going and adjust to new realities on the ground.

Every civil servant can do three basic things to push through turbulent times like these:

Recognize your own red flags. The work we do can be draining and leave little time to rest and recuperate. After six months, we still don’t know how long we’ll be teleworking or if new changes to our work routine will throw us off balance. It is more important than usual to focus on self-awareness, one of the core competencies in the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model. When we experience stress at work we tend to fall back on what we’re good at, even if it’s not what the situation needs. This can be particularly dangerous for leaders, who risk burning out teams trying to maintain the old normal rather than learning from the situation and developing new approaches.  

Connect with your team. Spend twice as much time as you normally would engaging others. Since remote work began, federal leaders have made extraordinary efforts to connect with their teams. As a result, they have gained invaluable insights into the relationship between their employees’ personal lives and work lives. Six months in, everyone’s lives have changed multiple times. Traditionally, leaders value stability in government. They examine their teams’ capabilities and use this knowledge to build models of process, analyze systems and develop various tools to standardize and improve performance. Right now, however, none of that works because of constant uncertainty – an outbreak may have closed school for the week, a partner may have lost a job, someone may be grieving the loss of a loved one. Good leaders monitor these changes and realistically assess their employees’ changing productivity during these challenging times.

Keep work moving. When individual performance plans or organizational plans get out of touch with reality, momentum becomes a critical organizing and motivational tool for your team. The tasks your employees work on don’t have to be large or transformational, and you don’t need to run at 100% capacity. But people need work to do. Make sure everyone has a chance to contribute and see that their day-to-day efforts help achieve larger goals. With so much uncertainty, make sure your people know that they can still serve the mission.

Civil servants are sustained by a call to serve. That calling has helped our nation confront numerous challenges through the years, and it will guide us through this one too.

Stay tuned for the second part of this blog post on planning for future uncertainty.

Michael Lawyer is a federal workplace expert who has spent two decades helping people find and act on their call to serve. He currently serves in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and on the board of directors for the Presidential Management Alumni Association.