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Half of Feds Will Be Furloughed – How Do You Stop Work From Piling Up?

We are on day 47 of the dreaded sequester and the new budget realities are starting to sink in for many agencies. More than half of the federal workforce will be hit with some for of furloughs. So how do you keep your team motivated? What is the real next step?

Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Vice President for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that at this point agencies have to start dealing with the unavoidable.


“Furloughs are the sort of unavoidable consequence of the situation we are in right now. The sad state of affairs is the work isn’t going away and it is affecting folks at all levels of an organization. I am afraid we are going to see the work pile up and be delayed as a result of the furloughs. Federal leaders will be left with the challenge of ensuring that those piles of work don’t add up,” said Fox.

Furloughs will touch about half of the federal workforce.

“That is a lot of people. It is important to remember that this just doesn’t effect people at the workplace it effects them at home too. If there is any sort of silver lining in this dark storm cloud it is that now that the 2013 budget is in place for the remainder of the year agencies are getting a little more clarity and they’ve discovered that some of the furloughs will be a little less intense then they were originally planned,” said Fox.

How do you lead?

“You have to shoot straight with your folks. It seems like we talk about communication on a regular basis and I think this is one situation where you really want to over communicate. You want to make sure you are touching base with your employees on a regular basis. Let them know what you can and can’t share. And if you can’t share something let your employees know that. Say we are not ready to share that, the senior leaders haven’t told us yet. They’ll respect that you are being as honest and candid as you can be,” said Fox.

Collect Ideas From Everyone

“You also want to allow for time to not just share information but to collect it as well. As a leader you want to try to meet with as many people individually as you can. Take 5 minutes, 15 minutes, as much time as you can afford to speak with individuals both about the professional and personal impact of the sequester. We know there is probably little you can do, but it is good for you to hear,” said Fox.

Ask for Help – It Doesn’t Make You Weak

“As a leader it shows you have the self-confidence to sit down with your folks and say, ‘we are facing very difficult circumstances, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I would like for us to work together to make the best of this situation.’ Because you know as well as I do that the taxpayers expect us to continue to deliver services – on time and on budget. So it will take all of our collective time and energy to figure it out. And not everyone will respond to that. You will get some cynics in the room who will say Congress should just pass a budget and give us the full funding we need to do our work. But you will find people because they will make themselves very apparent, because they will be vocal and actively engaged because they want to work things out with you. And those are the people that you want to engage because you will desperately need their help as a leader,” said Fox.

Sequestration – Can’t Prioritize Much?

“Everyone can agree, both in and out of government, that there are places where the federal government can become more efficient. Sequestration does tend to be a very heavy handed but now that there is a 2013 budget in place what I am hearing from leaders is that they have a little more wherewithal now to make more strategic cuts and make sure they are continuing to make strategic investments into programs that do help them achieve their goals,” said Fox.

Find out what works for your people.

“The last thing you want to do when you are in essence seeing your pay cut is go and spend 10 dollars at the local watering hole. You need to figure out what works best for your people. Maybe as a senior leader you spring out of your own pocket a set of bagels and cream cheese that you can spare with folks during a morning all hands meeting. In other circumstances they might not want to talk about the bad news anymore, they just want to move on. So maybe you can have a brown bag session and talk about the things that may engage them a little more. Maybe focus it around a really engaging TED talk that might inspire people to reconnect with why they are doing what they are doing. Don’t just assume that happy hour is the solution to every problem. Figure out who are the natural networkers and talk to them about how they can help you engage people,” said Fox.

Seek Out Younger Workers

“My wife is fond of saying when she needs an answer to a problem she will go to the youngest person in her office to tap into their expertise, because a lot of times they have a different frame of reference from other workers. They also don’t have the filter that many older and more experienced workers seem to have. They may give you the straight scoop,” said Fox.

Manage the Uncertainty

“What makes it really hard is all the uncertainty. Even with the 2013 budget being locked down people are looking ahead to the 2014 budget. Even when we had the government shutdown in the 90s there was a feeling that the two sides would work it out and work it out in a way that would keep everyone whole. People felt they would get back pay. Now there is less certainty about the direction that the government is headed in and the funding that each agency will get. And uncertainty heightens anxiety. So to the extent that a leader can alleviate worry and concern will go along way towards making their folks more productive and happy,” said Fox.

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Profile Photo Rod Trevino

I will only comment on the “How do you lead?” comment. I am not really sure who Tom Fox is. Don’t know, don’t care. I think that he significantly generalizes the statement “They’ll respect that you are being as honest and candid as you can be.”

I am a Fed. I have long been a hard working and dedicated federal worker. I have sat in countless meetings where my managers have had long talks about leadership, strategic thinking, and all these incredible buzzwords that managers and executives like to toss around. Find a book, read a fancy word, toss it into some meetings. Pat self on back for a job well done. Enter the sequester. We have known about this for quite some time. It was put into effect quite some time ago. I am not an executive. I am not a high paid employee. Sure, I have a high degree of education, but I am not a high roller in my organization nor do I speak on its behalf. But I like to think I have common sense. Here is one for you. We have a situation which will potentially affect all the employees working in our organization. They are already suffering years of neglect and blame from the American public for things that are beyond their control. We know we may face a difficult situation. Hmmm…let’s start planning this right now. Let’s have a set plan of action, contingencies, ideas lined up. When and if this hits, we will give them information and put their minds at ease, at least as much as we can. I think my managers would call it “strategic thinking” and I would certainly expect my executives and managers to have used it quite liberally. Instead, we had silence. We got the occasional emails that something was happening but more would come soon. Our lives are turned upside down because we are not sure what we need to plan for. How long? What extent? Etc. These are the people that need to have answers. These are the discussions that need to be conducted way ahead of time to have plans in place should the worst case scenario happen. Instead, we get lip service. We hear nothing. Then we hear our senior leadership is still working on it. They are being honest. But how honest? How do we know? How are we expected to think they suddenly care for our well being? No, I do not believe what they say. I have done this dance too many times.

So, to Tom Fox, I am sure you are important and highly regarded and the like. But for goodness sake sir, do not generalize especially when you are not on the receiving end of a difficult situation like the sequester.

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