Federal Managers Should Model Self-Care for Their Employees

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Government officials offered tips for managing workplaces during unusually stressful times.

As Americans experience life disrupted by the persisting coronavirus pandemic, economic turmoil and nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, federal managers must figure out how to ensure their teams and personnel are OK during this especially sensitive reality.

“The fact that we're now in a pandemic, in a crisis, and especially other events that have occurred recently, I think that managers have to be flexible and empathetic with their staff members,” the Homeland Security Department’s Executive Director of Human Resources Management and Services at the Nicole Barksdale-Perry told Nextgov during a virtual panel. “I think that we have to understand that there are people who are going to thrive during this time, but there are also people that are that are not thriving and that are really struggling.”

To be effective, Barksdale-Perry said it’s crucial for team leaders to be able to “quickly pivot between those employees,” and treat each member of their personnel as individuals. “I do believe that now, more than ever, focusing on employees’ mental and physical health is very important,” she said. 

When the pandemic first disrupted business-as-usual and launched most agency employees into full-time telework, DHS released a range of webinars and training materials to support its workforce during the adjustment, and they’ve continued to share resources to date. And once COVID-19 hit, Barksdale-Perry said she also started to hold “a lot more” face-to-face meetings—virtually—with her team. 

“We used to have them once every quarter, because of course, we would see each other every day. I'm now holding them pretty much every other week,” she explained. “And it is really to ensure that the team sees me, that we're connected. I try to make it as interactive as possible.”

When the weather is nice, Barksdale-Perry also encourages her team to go outside, go for a run, do yoga on their decks, or really any activity that makes the most sense for them. In doing so, she added that it’s important for managers to lead by example.

“They are looking to you—and so when I tell people ‘get up and go outside,’ I plan to do the same thing for an hour and I tell them ‘hey, I'm going for a run this morning, you know, you should go out and get up and do it as well.”

The General Services Administration's Chief of Projects for 18F Sarah Eckert also emphasized the importance of managers practicing what they preach, as an example to those who report to them. Eckert’s team was already used to working in remote environments for its entire existence prior to the pandemic and insiders “really focus on our managers creating that safe and supportive environment for their team members,” she said. Upon COVID-19’s inception, 18F leaders compiled and shared new and existing appropriate resources with their teams, to help “folks feel supported.”

“The support can also come through, as managers, us modeling self care,” she said. 

Setting examples by taking their own, necessary time to recharge is crucial, and Eckert added that the 18F team is also “very, very religious” about virtual one-on-one meetings weekly between managers and individual employees to provide an “additional sort of connection point.”

Across all their conversations, she said it is also critical for managers to understand that some employees “may feel really disconnected from the content of their work right now with what is going on in the world.” With that at the top of mind, she reiterated the point that “it's really important to have the empathy and understanding that everyone is experiencing things differently.”

As an example of enhanced resources during the global health crisis, Eskert explained that the project team instituted additional questions within its Project Health Matrix, which is essentially health assessments members submit each week that provide and overview on topics such as the team’s health, stakeholder engagement, how 18F is aligned with its partners in the new conditions and other elements of that nature. 

“We specifically added questions, more, for like how folks are doing due to the pandemic international crisis, and so we started assessing the actual health of the person, as well as the health of the team outside of the work,” Eckert said. “And I think I'd love to see that continue beyond this because it's been really helpful and insightful to see how folks are being impacted by the various events that are happening in their communities.”

The majority of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s nearly 13,000 employee base was already accustomed to remote work before COVID-19. The agency has a telework resource site that Danette Campbell, director of USPTO’s Telework Program Office, said is completely devoted to offering insiders tools and tips for working from home. The webpage includes telework-centric articles, white papers and additional research materials for employees to tap into, and she added that the agency also provides materials on best practices for managers and employees regarding their remote efforts, as well as telework tips on a weekly basis. 

“And what I am hearing from my colleagues and I hear from my colleagues throughout the federal government, and private sector organizations as well, is the health and the safety and the well being of each employee is a top priority,” Campbell said. 

To that effect, USPTO incorporates a range of unique online engagement activities that Campbell said are deliberately designed to create camaraderies across the agency—particularly as employees are operating remotely. These virtual activities range from weekly, themed “Bring Your Own Mug” chats, book club discussions, recipe sharing meets and beyond. 

“Something as simple as a virtual coffee, you know, just quickly jumping on a WebEx with your team,” she said. “Let's say ‘let's get together for 10 minutes and just talk about your family, talk about your dog, how are things going?’”

Campbell noted that through the course of her career she’s come to learn that “being a good manager—whether you are on site or offsite—it's not so different.” She went on to share a list she compiled of qualities that she views as “inherent in good management and leadership.” Those include honesty, excellent communication skills, decisiveness, confidence, and responsibility.

“And in this environment, of course, empathy, focus—and we all need a little bit of creativity,” Campbell said.