Remote and Flexible Work Encouraged in Federal Agencies’ Post-COVID Re-entry Plans

Acknowledging the telework flexibility and ingenuity embraced by agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic, the heads of the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration told department and agency leaders that they should prepare for a tailored, well-planned, and gradual return — or continued remote or hybrid work — of federal employees and contractors.

“Executive departments and agencies must integrate their planning for reentry with their planning for post-reentry personnel policies and work environment,” Acting OMB Director Shalanda D. Young, Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan, and Acting GSA Administrator Katy Kale wrote in the Thursday memorandum, noting that the federal government “quickly went from 3 percent of employees teleworking every day to nearly 60 percent.”

“This rapid shift to increased telework and remote work was made possible because of agency investments in information technology (IT) modernization, such as adoption of cloud-based solutions, as well as the broad and strategic application of personnel policies, including weather-and-safety leave, pandemic evacuation, telework, remote work, alternative work schedules, and leave flexibilities,” they added. “Throughout these changes, agencies continued to deliver on their mission.”

The memo says that COVID-19 workplace safety plans “remain in effect across Federal workplaces” and should be updated to align with current guidance such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent interim recommendations that allow greater activity for fully vaccinated people.

Agencies “may establish occupancy limits for specific workplaces as a means of ensuring physical distancing between unvaccinated individuals” while following their specific workplace safety plans and phased re-entry plan. The federal government’s nationwide operating status remains at “open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, pursuant to direction from agency heads.”

GSA-controlled buildings have been making improvements to HVAC systems to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread, and all agencies are supposed to complete by July 19 their re-entry plans for employees and contractors as appropriate along with intended post-reentry personnel and work environment policies.

“Agencies are expected to develop policy guidelines that provide guardrails for decision making across divisions, offices, and teams,” the memo notes. “Most decisions about application of those policy guidelines should be delegated to the lowest possible levels in the organization, to provide maximum flexibility for defining work requirements to meet mission and workforce needs.” Agencies’ COVID-19 workplace safety plans will be updated and shared with employees and contractors before phased re-entry begins.

“Agency plans for reentry and post-reentry should be informed by lessons learned during the past 15 months,” it adds. “The agency’s eventual post-pandemic operating state may differ in significant ways from the agency’s pre-pandemic operating state.”

The memo “strongly encourages” all federal employees and contractors to get a COVID-19 vaccine with paid time off for the shot itself and any resultant side effects, but “at present, COVID-19 vaccination should generally not be a precondition for employees or contractors at agencies to work in-person in Federal buildings, on Federal lands, and in other settings as required by their job duties.”

“Federal employees and contractors may voluntarily share information about their vaccination status, but agencies should not require Federal employees or contractors to disclose such information,” the memo states. “…When an employee or contractor voluntarily discloses that they are unvaccinated or declines to provide vaccination information, agencies should use that information to implement CDC-recommended mitigation measures, including masking and physical distancing.”

OMB, OPM, and GSA said they expect that consistent with nationwide workplace trends many agencies will embrace a hybrid work environment in which some employees will return to the on-site workplace out of mission necessity and some out of personal preference, while many agencies “will allow and plan for an increased ratio of telework over onsite work, for more employees, as compared to agency work environments prior to the pandemic.”

“Divisions, offices, or teams may decide to expand the number of employees who work remotely, for some roles for which remote work is appropriate,” the memo continues. “…Where appropriate, an increased number of employees — more than prior to the pandemic — will be eligible for, and may want to participate in, some form of alternative work schedules.”

American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said that negotiations “will address the procedures for implementing these new policies around return to worksites, and those negotiations will take into consideration the complex issues federal employees are facing, whether they’ve been teleworking or continuing to report to their regular worksites.”

“We’re happy to see that the administration is not rushing or imposing any kind of uniform schedule but rather allowing agencies time to work with us for a safe re-entry that incorporates the lessons learned about both the advantages and disadvantages of telework,” Kelley said.

The guidance said that after a labor agreement is reached agencies “should provide ample notice” of the implementation of phased re-entry plans — in many cases, at least 30 days — “to any employees who will be returning to the physical workplace or who will have altered work schedules.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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