The federal government, as the nation’s largest employer, faced a significant challenge protecting the health and safety of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like private sector employers, the federal government’s immediate response included a dramatic shift towards telework. In partnership with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and the private sector, the federal government is ramping back up government operations to the maximum extent possible based on local conditions and consistent with the President’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.
As federal agencies increase the hours that public-facing offices are open for in-person appointments and services, they must ensure compliance with the Safer Federal Workforce model safety principles and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations regarding community levels measuring the impact of the COVID-19 illness on health and healthcare systems, as well as consulting other applicable guidance.
Additionally, because agencies demonstrated the ability to conduct agency missions effectively during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they can now strategically transition to a hybrid work environment by leveraging telework and remote work (which are distinct arrangements in the federal government, as explained below) to better meet human capital needs and improve mission delivery in the future.
Agency COVID-19 workplace safety plans
Applicable legal framework
Reopening a workplace after any public health emergency involves laws and guidance by many governmental agencies and authorities. Specifically, federal agencies returning to the office must keep abreast of CDC recommendations and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) COVID-19 specific guidance (non-binding). At the same time, they have to ensure employment free from recognized hazards that may cause death or serious physical harm. Agencies must also comply with Office of Personnel Management guidance and the laws it administers for covered employees. Finally, agencies must consider the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance related to COVID-19, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other EEO laws.
What workplace safety protocols should agencies implement?
When implementing workplace health and safety protocols, federal agencies should:
- Access facility readiness
- Clean and disinfect the workplace
- Ensure compliance with Safer Federal Workforce guidance on vaccinations
- Review and update the agency’s COVID-19 testing plan
- Follow CDC protocols for quarantine and isolation
- Adjust masking and screening protocols, as necessary
- Review and evaluate agency facility visitor procedures and alternative procedures when necessary
(See, Federal Sector Employees Return to the Physical Workplace Checklist).
Reimagining federal agencies return to office
Agencies can deploy personnel policies such as telework and remote work effectively and efficiently as strategic management tools for attracting, retaining, and engaging talent. These policies help advance agency missions in the context of changes in workplaces nationwide resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to long-term workforce trends.
Revisiting federal telework programs
Telework is not a new phenomenon in federal public employment. The use of telework as an alternative work arrangement in the federal government began in the 1970s. Signed into law on December 9, 2010, identifies roles, responsibilities, and expectations for federal agencies. Although employees and managers may use the terms “telework” or “remote work” interchangeably, these are distinct work arrangements in the federal government with differing statutory frameworks and policy implications.
In practice, telework is a work arrangement that allows employees to have regularly scheduled days where they telework (work from an alternate location) and regularly scheduled days when they work at the agency workplace. This is much like the current “hybrid work” trend occurring in many private workplaces. Agencies may allow employees to participate in telework on a routine or situational basis in compliance with the Act after satisfying appropriate collective bargaining obligations. When considering potentially expanding the agency telework program, it is important to note that a robust and well-practiced federal telework program improves employee performance and engagement and supports mission productivity and efficiency.
Establishing a remote work policy
Remote work has become more widely offered by organizations of all sizes over the last couple of years. More than a quarter of US employers offer remote work arrangements, and that trend is continuing to grow as private and public organizations reevaluate the effectiveness of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal agencies returning to the office may want to explore expanded remote work opportunities as a strategy to deliver agency mission and attract and retain a talented and skilled workforce. Remote work arrangements can help agencies recruit new employees with hard-to-find skill sets or retain current employees seeking to relocate.
However, remote work arrangements require intentional thought and planning because they raise logistical and policy issues, including reassignment of the official workplace impacting pay and travel costs, which may create certain disincentives for agencies. Based on policy and cost implications of remote work arrangements, agencies should highlight the cost-effectiveness and business benefits to the agency when establishing a remote work policy.
(Seh, Federal Sector Hybrid Work Checklist).
What are the next steps for federal agencies returning to the office?
Agencies should consider leveraging workplace flexibilities, including telework, remote work, and alternative/flexible work schedules as tools to help attract, recruit, and retain the best possible workforce. When revisiting or establishing telework and remote work policies, agencies should look specifically to lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic when engaging in strategic workforce planning. Agencies must also remember to incorporate teleworkers into their Continuity of Government Plans (COOP) to leverage additional employees in meeting critical missions during a COOP event.
Learn more about the complexities and rules surrounding Federal employees returning to the physical workplace in this webcast.