Keeping the office on track is key to management in shutdown mode

Thursday - 10/3/2013, 1:08pm EDT

Katherine Hammack on the "Federal Drive"

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Bob Tobias on "In Depth"

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By Nicole Ogrysko
Federal News Radio

Federal employees still on the job during the government shutdown have a big task on their hands: managing an agency with a skeleton staff and a heavy workload. Once the government reopens, hundreds of unchecked emails and a backlog of work await managers and their employees.

"Nobody's saying you should do less," Bob Tobias, director of key executive leadership programs at American University, said on In Depth with Francis Rose Wednesday. "Those who are there are working incredibly hard, so the challenge of leaders is how do I stay engaged with people who are really in a survival cycle. There isn't time to be creative, there isn't time to be innovative, there's only time to survive."

To make a dent in their workload, agencies are modifying their programs and looking for ways to do more with less.

Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, said Wednesday on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp the Army is putting some of its non-essential programs on hold, like plans to help soldiers evaluate and reduce their energy and water use as part of October's Energy Awareness Month. When the government reopens, sorting through the assignments that were postponed or scaled back and reprioritizing tasks is going to be the challenge, Hammack said.

Bob Tobias, director of key executive leadership programs at American University

"Some things may never get done, and that is unfortunate because I know we've got a lot of people who put time and effort, and sometimes it's the personal time that's been put into making an event or a communication effort effective, and sometimes we're not going to be able to make those kinds of things up," she said. "...There is going to be a backlog of work that has to be done. Some of the good efforts or the kinds of things we'd like to do is what's going to be postponed because of the must-have activities."

But managers looking for guidance from the last government shutdown in 1996, won't find much help, Tobias said.

"I don't think that best practices were created," he said. "I think people stumbled back to work and stumbled up to capacity, and no one stopped to say, 'what is the best practice should this happen again?'"

He also said the federal workforce has changed since 1996, with more "knowledge workers" and fewer employees doing administrative tasks. To connect with employees and boost morale during the shutdown, Tobias said managers should be transparent and open with their staff about what's expected of them both during and after the shutdown.

"I have to be saying, 'look, I get it. I understand burn out, but I also am asking you, to the best you can, to keep focused on the mission that brought you here. That's why we're here. That's why you're essential,'" he said. "I have to keep saying that over and over again in different ways to help people not drown."

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