A nearly deserted West Lake Mall area and Pine Street in downtown Seattle during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, April 22. Photo by Michael J. Magee

By Rachel Alberstadt

Seattle Passport Agency Director George “Trip” Atkins recently discussed resilient leadership in the face of adverse circumstances with his team. In early 2020, in addition to changing leadership at the agency, protests, riots, and instability, Washington state also became a hot zone of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, Atkins considered that his leadership approach needed to become more flexible to prioritize his employees’ concerns and safety. In striving for resilience, he explained that resilience takes different shapes in different people in different ways. For him, resilience is exemplified in maintaining a sense of humor and achieving a balance between finding control and letting go. 

Amid the pandemic, the Seattle Passport Agency configured its public lobby to allow for social distancing. Photo by Wendy Wheeler
Amid the pandemic, the Seattle Passport Agency configured its public lobby to allow for social distancing. Photo by Wendy Wheeler

“Leaders need a large toolbox to apply to different situations and people,” said Atkins. “They need to be perceptive of employee needs, to try to find out what people need as individuals to be resilient, and then communicate what tools are available to them.” 

Resilient leadership should be positive, upbeat, and address concerns directly. It is important to address mistakes or uncertainties and provide reassurances for how to move forward. According to Atkins, his best practices have been to constantly monitor and review what is working and try something else if needed. 

“Resilience is an ever-changing thing—it’s a moving target, it’s not an indefinite achievement,” he said. 

The Seattle Passport Agency team developed “welcome-back” kits for returning employees that include personal protective equipment. Photo by Wendy Wheeler
The Seattle Passport Agency team developed “welcome-back” kits for returning employees that include personal protective equipment. Photo by Wendy Wheeler

Atkins recommends three key strategies to a resilient workplace: communication, planning, and delegating. The COVID-19 pandemic inspired Atkins to change his leadership approach by highlighting the need for effective communication, both horizontally and vertically. He made himself more visible to staff to address employee concerns and publicize plans. He discussed communication as his primary tool to build a more resilient workplace. Agency leadership made a concerted effort to solicit feedback from team members and asked how they wanted to be communicated with and how often. This changed the timing and methods of communication to more creatively and effectively meet the stakeholders’ needs. 

Atkins adopted several flexible and inventive approaches to grapple with evolving circumstances. These approaches included prioritizing the adoption of safety measures and communicating up the chain of command regarding Seattle’s on-the-ground conditions. When Seattle became the epicenter for the virus early in the outbreak, it was important to monitor conditions, share information, and collaborate with other federal agencies.

Atkins’ planning strategy prioritized employee safety by engaging with them, listening to their concerns, and implementing their feedback through thoughtful negotiations. In drafting and revising contingency plans, information sharing played a key role. This information sharing required adopting flexible communication methods, such as text messages, email, and video chat to stay in touch with federal colleagues and agency leadership. However, planning for every conceivable scenario may have seemed impossible. Atkins explained that “the more you drill down, the more prepared you are to react and respond to these scenarios, and focus your attention on providing reassurance in your preparedness to your employees and leadership up the chain.” 

The Seattle Passport Agency implemented several procedures, such as physical distancing, mask-wearing, increased cleaning and sanitizing resources, and additional signage and directions for both employees and the visiting public to ensure hygienic safety. Temperature scans are now offered in the public lobby. For employees, increased parking and transit accommodations are making commuting easier. Atkins observed that implementing standardized procedures early on and clearly communicating updates garnered a more relaxed feeling of camaraderie among his team. 

The Seattle Passport Agency reconfigured employee workstations in a diamond pattern to allow social distancing. Photo by Wendy Wheeler
The Seattle Passport Agency reconfigured employee workstations in a diamond pattern to allow social distancing. Photo by Wendy Wheeler

Passport Services advances five core values: people, effective leadership, professionalism, integrity, and collaboration. These values, derived from employee input, have served as useful guides in creating a resilient workforce under adverse circumstances. These values are integral to the Seattle team’s work ethic. The COVID-19 pandemic reiterated the importance of these values and how they form the “bedrock of how we operate and what we do,” said Atkins. 

The Seattle Passport Agency attests that collaboration is key. People need to be working from the same page and learn from each other—sharing information and cooperating to problem solve. 

“Problem-solving on one level can provide precedent for the future, reinforcing the need to share information and communicate with stakeholders, and critically engaging with our values,” said Atkins. “An effective plan will delegate actions as one leader cannot do everything alone but needs to utilize the entire team for input and assistance to commit to executing the plan.”

Atkins said he understands the desire of many to return to recognizable norms but submits that the COVID-19 pandemic has created the potential to enact more effective techniques moving forward. 

Director George “Trip” Atkins serves coffee to staff during a celebration acknowledging employees’ service and Passport Services’ values, Aug. 6. Photo by Scott McCormick
Director George “Trip” Atkins serves coffee to staff during a celebration acknowledging employees’ service and Passport Services’ values, Aug. 6. Photo by Scott McCormick

“So much of our time at present is taken up with emergency or unusual cases, which are time-consuming and somewhat disruptive,” said Atkins. “So we are trying to experiment with different ways of getting the work done. I am hopeful that the challenge we face will also be an opportunity to rethink how we do our work and to carry forward some of the new ideas we are testing out now.”

It is clear that federal workplaces, like the Seattle Passport Agency, have adopted more creative, innovative, and inventive strategies to build resilience to achieve goals. To strengthen resilience in the workplace, leveraging key tools like communication, planning, and delegation are recommended. Adopting these strategies can allow federal employees and workplaces to manage the challenges faced by 2020 and thrive despite them.

Rachel Alberstadt is a passport specialist in the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Seattle Passport Agency.