How to reopen government offices safely

Millions of federal workers are returning to the office. Here’s what agency leaders need to do to protect them.

Thousands of organizations are wrestling with whether, when, and how to bring employees back to communal workplaces. Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than inside the federal government.

With 2.1 million full-time employees spread across every state and U.S. territory, Uncle Sam remains the country’s biggest and most geographically diverse employer.

Like millions of other American workers, many federal employees have spent months working from home. But large numbers of federal employees can’t complete their work remotely; for them, Slack and Zoom are not the tools that get the job done.

Scientists working at Health and Human Services, for example, can’t sequence a gene from a home office. Intelligence analysts who deal with classified materials need to work inside specialized, highly secure environments. USDA inspectors by definition must travel to meatpacking plants, and Postal Service carriers still personally deliver the mail to your mailbox.

Within the Veterans Administration’s network of hospitals and clinics, thousands of healthcare workers never stopped reporting to their places of work. The IRS is one of the first large federal agencies to reopen its facilities nationwide, and among myriad other functions, it needs staff onsite to process paper tax returns and approve and issue refunds.

As many other federal agencies begin the process of bringing back employees, the question becomes how to do it safely and transparently.

Focus on the human element

While the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies have issued general guidelines for reopening federal offices, there is no single solution to this challenge. And the guidelines themselves may change: A group of Senate Democrats has called for revisions to better ensure worker safety. Wherever the guidelines land, flexibility is essential.

The first step for agency leaders is to understand the unique role everyone in each operating unit plays and determine who needs to be on-site to accomplish their missions.

Once leaders have determined that, they need to consider the conditions their employees face. What phase of recovery are they in? How badly does the pandemic impact their area?

Department heads and managers should also consider individual needs. For instance, some employees who have a pre-existing condition or care for family members with compromised immune systems, would returning to work put them or loved ones at greater risk?

Agency leaders must also engage with employees and gather candid feedback about their wellness and ability to return. Even if an entire operating unit is brought back to the workplace, managers need to maintain enough flexibility to support individual telework plans.

The human element is critical. Agencies need employees to be ready to return and do their best work.

Prepare for new processes

Once agency leaders determine that returning to the office is safe, the real work begins. The processes for federal departments are primarily the same as for private enterprise, but executing them will likely be more challenging due to the size and complexity of most agencies.

For example, each organization must establish processes for health screening, workplace sanitation, and space scheduling to maintain social distance. It should provide easy access to health and safety information and may also need to distribute personal protective equipment.

Organizations also need processes to quickly identify employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 and perform rapid contact tracing to identify any colleagues who may have been exposed to infected employees.

They also need to continually gather feedback about how employees feel about the workplace and the processes in place and promptly address any concerns.

All of these requirements add new layers of oversight and management that can be daunting for even a small agency, let alone behemoths that oversee operational units in multiple states.

Digitize for the future

If this crisis has a silver lining, it’s how the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital workflows by private enterprises. The same can and should be true of the public sector.

Now is the time for agency leaders to re-examine manual processes and identify those that can be digitized. Obvious areas to consider are onboarding and off-boarding, document signing, and implementing new workplace safety protocols during the pandemic and beyond.

The key is to make sure leaders understand what they’re trying to accomplish and how to measure value before creating and executing a plan. Moving too quickly may result in missing something important. There’s no need to rush, but there’s also no time to waste.

Once agencies have digitized their processes, they’ll be ready for employees to return to work or work from home as necessary. And when the next major crisis strikes, they’ll be able to continue delivering services to the people who count on them.