Telework is helping federal agencies to return to work.

As the largest employer in the country, the federal government faced a significant challenge when it came to protecting the health and well-being of its employees during the COVID-19 epidemic. The federal government, like private employers, immediately shifted to telework. The federal government, in partnership with local, state, tribal, and territorial governments, as well as the private sector, is ramping up government operations at the maximum possible level based on the local conditions and following President Obama’s guidelines for opening America again.

The federal government is increasing the hours its public-facing offices will be open for appointments and services. They must comply with the Safer Federal Workforce safety model and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations for measuring the impact on the health and healthcare system at the community level.

In addition, agencies that were able to carry out their missions efficiently during the COVID-19 pandemic can now strategically transition to a new hybrid work environment, leveraging telework (which is a distinct arrangement in the federal government, as explained below) to meet future human capital requirements better and improve mission delivery.

Safety Plans for COVID-19 Agencies

Legal framework applicable

Many governmental agencies, authorities, and laws are involved in reopening the workplace following a public health emergency. Federal agencies that return to work must be aware of CDC recommendations and Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) COVID-19 guidance. Moreover, they must ensure the workplace is free of recognized hazards that could cause severe injury or death. Agencies must follow the Office of Personnel Management and its laws. Finally, agencies should consider Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance on COVID-19 and the ADA. They must also take into account other EEO laws.

What safety measures should agencies adopt?

Federal agencies should:

Access facility readiness

Cleaning and disinfecting the workplace

Follow the Safer Federal Workforce guidelines on vaccinations.

Update the COVID-19 test plan of the agency

Follow CDC quarantine and isolation protocols

As necessary, adjust masking and screening protocols

Review and evaluate the agency facility visitor policies and procedures, and consider alternative policies when necessary.

Reimagining federal agencies’ Return to Office

The agencies can use personnel policies like telework or remote work as strategic management tools to attract, retain, and engage talent. These policies can help agencies achieve their missions in light of the changes that have occurred in workplaces across the country as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic and to respond to long-term trends in the workforce.

Revisiting federal telework programs

Telework in the federal government is not a recent phenomenon. In the 1970s, the federal government started using telework to provide an alternative working arrangement. The Telework Enhancement Act, signed into law by President Obama on December 9, 2010, defines federal agencies’ roles, responsibilities, and expectations. While employees and managers use “telework” and “remote working” interchangeably, they are distinct work arrangements within the federal government. They have different statutory frameworks and policies.

Telework is an arrangement of work that allows employees to work from a different location on certain days and at the office on other days. It is similar to the “hybrid” work trend that has been sweeping many private workplaces. After satisfying the appropriate collective bargaining obligations, agencies may allow employees to engage in telework as a routine activity or in certain situations in compliance with Act. It is important to remember that when considering expanding an agency’s telework program, a well-established and robust federal telework policy will improve employee engagement and performance and support mission productivity and efficiency.

Setting up a policy for remote work

Over the past couple of years, organizations of all sizes have increasingly offered remote work. Over a quarter (25%) of US employers provide remote work options. This trend continues to grow as private and public organizations reevaluate how effective working from home is during the COVID-19 epidemic.

As federal agencies return to their offices, they may explore remote work options to help them achieve agency goals and to attract and retain talented and skilled employees. Remote work arrangements help agencies retain employees looking to relocate or recruit employees with difficult-to-find skills.

Remote work arrangements, however, require deliberate thought and planning as they raise policy and logistical issues. This includes reassigning the official worksite, which can impact pay and travel expenses and may disincentivize agencies. When establishing a policy on remote work, agencies should consider the policy implications and costs of the remote work arrangements.

What is the next step for federal agencies that are returning to work?

To attract, retain, and recruit the best workforce, agencies should leverage workplace flexibility, such as telework, alternative/flexible schedules, and remote work. In strategic workforce planning, agencies can use lessons learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic to revisit or establish telework and remote work policies. To leverage additional employees to meet critical missions in a COOP, agencies must remember to include teleworkers in their Continuity of Government Plans.

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