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Posted by on Oct 17, 2013

Now What? Returning from Furlough: Three Steps to Re-Engage Your Team


The furlough is over and our Federal Government is back at work. This should be great, right? Everyone should be happy – even psyched to be returning to work?  Well, not so much in many cases. Remember when civil servants were admired for service to our country? Even if you do, most of them don’t. Our Federal workforce has been under the cloud of increased scrutiny, public condemnation, and inquest from a Congress that used to extol the selfless act of service.

Over the last few weeks, debates on the news about the shutdown have included views that our “non-essential” Federal workers should be laid off. After all, they’re non-essential, right? Facebook posts have vilified the Federal workforce. Tweets have blamed our “too large” Federal workforce for our deficit. Our Federal workforce is frustrated with their bosses and probably deserving of a Clark Griswold like rant about them, except that their bosses are the American people. (Side note: if you haven’t seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, you must.) And more than anything, civil servants love the American people. That’s why they are civil servants. (Please imagine an adorable child singing “God Bless America” now.) 

The direct effects of the Shutdown combined with the media assault have turned our Federal workforce into the “walking wounded”. And your team is well aware this could happen again in January. How can you, as a leader, build back up your team’s engagement and retain your top talent in such a situation?

To regain employee engagement after shutdown, leaders must focus on connections: the employee’s connection to their team, their leadership, their agency, and, most importantly, the agency’s mission. To that end, leaders must focus on the drivers of connection:

1. Leading the individuals in the organization, not just the organization
2. Confidence in the importance and achievability of the organization’s mission
3. Interesting work that is a vital contribution to the organization’s mission
4. Work/ life fit even with the backlog
5. Confidence in senior leaders’ ability to manage in turbulence

In business-as-usual situations, managers should spend about 20% of their time developing their staff. That target is rarely met. Moreover, most managers end up spending a disproportionate amount of time with low performers. It is imperative that you focus on your top performers. This will not only help to retain the key personnel but also allow you to use their influence in getting the organization back to its pre-shutdown morale. Not doing so can result in an exodus of talent with the remaining staff limited to those without other career options, creating a “lemon law” in the organization.

Plan to have two one-hour team meetings and at least a half hour with each direct report — and up to an hour with key personnel — the first week back. It’s also usual to spend up to four hours reorganizing workflow and assignments.

So, how does a leader take action on all of those things while catching up on their own work? We suggest a three step process to re-engage your team:

1. On the first day back, meet with your team (i.e., both direct and indirect reports) as a team to build confidence in the importance and achievability of the organization’s mission.

As you team arrives at the meeting, greet each of them personally. Shake their hands and welcome them back. Let them know your organization’s mission is still important to our country, then talk about the mission. Think about how you have managed before the shutdown. When is the last time you discussed how your team’s work contributes to the organization’s mission? How much time have you spent with your team discussing the organization’s strategic goals and objectives?  In the day-to-day monotony of getting work done, it’s easy to lose sight of how important that work is to our nation.

Moreover, studies have shown that strategic goals are rarely communicated down the hierarchy to the staff level in a meaningful way. Provide your team with an update of how well your organization is fulfilling its mission now and what the plans are to continue to achieve great mission results. This is also an opportunity to instill confidence that your leadership can guide the team through this turbulence. Unfortunately, the return to work now doesn’t bar another shut down later. Let the team know you’re prepared to lead them no matter what the circumstances by talking through your expectations of the future and how you will lead.

2. During the first week back, meet with each of your direct reports individually to:

Demonstrate an personal investment in each individual
As a leader, you are leading individuals, not just the organization. Ask each member of your team about any personal implications of the shutdown. Of course no leader has time to listen to everyone’s personal problems, but you do need to manage the whole person and specifically discuss implications of the shutdown. Did it put a lot of stress on their family? Do they need anything to manage that? Offer up solutions where you can, but also be prepared to just provide empathy.

Ensure each individual has interesting work that is a vital contribution to the organization’s mission
Now is a great time to step back and articulate to your team explicitly how they each as individuals help achieve the organization’s mission. Of course no one’s job is interesting all the time.  But every individual on your team is vital and valued. If there is anyone on your team who doesn’t have an interesting project or task, acknowledge that and tell them what you will do to work with them find them something interesting to do. Your team is there because they want to make our great nation even greater. The service-orientation of your team is a powerful tool: give a civil servant something mundane to do that they know contributes to mission and they will find a way to make it interesting. You must, nonetheless, balance that with work that is interesting to the individual.

Discuss work-life fit and determine the workload
Don’t assume you know all the work on your team’s plate. Now is the time to listen to each individual about what they have to do, how long each task will take, and which are critical. Employees are more productive when they can set deadlines and priorities for their own work. Now is also a great time to seek out new ideas about how work can get done more efficiently, but only if you’re willing to implement good ideas. Your team needs to see you taking action on their ideas. Also be thinking about how you can re-arrange work within your team to increase productivity or give a team member a “stretch” assignment. Finally, be realistic about work-life fit. Remind your employees that this surge of work is temporary. If possible, use non-monetary means to try to increase balance. Can your employee work from home an extra day a week to reduce commuting time? Is there an opportunity for a formal, honorary award for significant achievement? 

Discuss the individual’s professional goals
Employees can get over the past only if they can see the future. It’s not necessary to promise your staff a promotion or to dictate the way to SES. It is important, however, for individual’s to understand “what’s next” and to feel that their supervisor understands their career goals and is invested in their success.

This is especially important for top performers, who will have the most options outside of their current role and organization. Now is not the time to dig out Individual Development Plans and talk about formal goals. Now is the time to understand where your employee wants to go and offer up ways to help them get there. Can you offer up training? A cross-functional teaming project? A stretch assignment? Suggest that the individual act as a mentor to a junior team member or identify a mentor for the individual. If you have time to do “skip-levels” and meet with indirect reports, that time and attention can dramatically drive up engagement.

3. Meet with your team by the end of the first week to reorganize the team’s workload or deadlines.

Unfortunately, the furlough didn’t stop the inflow of work and many of your team members are returning to a seemingly insurmountable task. During your one-on-ones you discussed each individual’s workload.

Finally, be prepared to go to your leadership to suggest changes to workload through extending deadlines or decreasing project scope if too much work has accumulated during the shutdown. Burning out your staff is often a greater risk than a few extra days tacked on to a deadline.

Following this strategy will create an environment that builds confidence in senior leadership’s ability to manage in turbulence. The workforce is expecting that the turbulence will continue. They must also have certainty that your strong leadership will continue, as well.

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