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How Do You Prepare For A Million Workers To Return To The Office? Ask The Government

President Biden is calling for White House employees to return to the office next month.
Andrew Harnik
President Biden is calling for White House employees to return to the office next month.

The nation's largest employer, the federal government, is beginning to plan for bringing many of its workers back into their offices, now that the coronavirus pandemic seems to be winding down in America.

Already, employees of the White House have been told to come back, or in many cases come to the office for the first time, next month. The Biden administration has also told other federal agencies to submit final plans for what it calls "the safe reentry of employees to the physical workplace" by July 19.

It's a big job, said Teresa Gerton, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonpartisan group that advises government leaders.

"This is really complicated," she told NPR. "The administration has got to think through everything from how you deal with people who are unvaccinated and won't get vaccinated, to how you deal with labor relations. And do those contracts have to be renegotiated? What is the method of performance management for people who aren't going to be in the office?"

She added, "It is not as easy as flipping a switch and just saying everybody back."

It's not clear how many government employees were able to work from home during the pandemic. Many, including TSA and Border Patrol officers, had no choice but to remain on site.

Jeff Neal, a former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, estimates that a little under half of the federal workforce, about a million workers, have jobs in which they could work from home, although its likely far fewer did.

As for what comes next, Neal said it's probably going to be a hybrid.

"What I think we're going to see is something that's somewhere between what we had pre-pandemic and what we have now," he said. "I think ... you're probably going to see more people working remotely. I don't think every agency is going to say anybody who wants to work from home can."

Some congressional Republicans have been pressuring the administration to move quickly to reopen shuttered federal offices. In letters to the acting directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., wrote, "As millions of Americans have received vaccinations and as the CDC has relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, it is our hope that the federal government will follow the science and reopen facilities to taxpaying Americans."

At some agencies, managers have already been calling some employees back into the office on a voluntary basis. Ralph de Juliis is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents Social Security workers. He said the biggest concern with reopening Social Security offices is safety for employees and the public.

"In many parts of the country, people aren't vaccinated," de Juliis noted. "We're nowhere near herd immunity. And we don't want the vulnerable populations that we serve exposed to packed lobbies where people are going to literally have to wait post-pandemic like they did pre-pandemic for hours just to turn in documents."

Aside from issues such as ensuring proper ventilation for workers and the public at federal offices, Neal said there are other concerns for managers, including employee morale.

"How do I feel if I can't work from home because of my job?" he asked. "But you get to work from home all the time. You don't have to pay for childcare. You don't have to commute."

And he raises another concern with continued telecommuting: computer security breaches.

"Lots of people connecting remotely probably presents far more risk of hacking than than a bunch of people connecting on a network in a government building," Neal added.

Still, Gerton points out that while there may be problems to overcome, there is also the chance to improve how services are delivered to the public. She said the Internal Revenue Service, for instance, made its website more user-friendly during the pandemic, and other agencies could follow suit.

"It's an opportunity to fundamentally reimagine what it means to work for the federal government," she said, "an opportunity to shake things up and say we've been doing it this way since the 1950s. Maybe we should think about something different for the next 50 years."

One thing seems certain, it's going to take a while to establish the new post-pandemic normal for federal employees and the public they serve.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.