The rapidly escalating challenges from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) global outbreak present critical workforce issues for federal agencies to assess and address, says the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). As a result, GAO has issued some key considerations that agencies should consider to protect their workforce and the members of the public with whom they interact. 

Some key considerations for federal workers' reentry to workplaces include:

  •  As federal agencies manage operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and plan for their employees to safely return to workplaces, GAO's prior work has shown that it is important for agencies to identify mission essential functions that cannot be performed remotely when deciding who needs to return to the office.
  • Agencies should also consider the exposure risk level and local conditions when deciding whether to reopen offices across the country. To protect employees as they reenter the workforce, it will be important for agencies to have appropriate protection measures in place. For example, agencies should consider how they can ensure adequate distribution of hygiene supplies. They should also consider changes to the work environment to reduce workplace hazards, and implement social distancing strategies.

The U.S. Census Bureau offers an example of how an agency suspended and resumed operations under the current pandemic, notes GAO. In March 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau suspended field operations of the Decennial Census and took a phased approach to resuming operations at its area census offices. As of June 11, all area census offices had resumed operations. Key aspects of resuming operations at area census offices included: (1) taking a phased approach to restarting operations, such as resuming operations that required less physical interaction first; (2) making operational changes to minimize face-to-face interactions; (3) addressing worker safety concerns; and (4) communicating pandemic plans to ensure continued operations.

Several key practices GAO previously identified are useful for agencies to help ensure telework contributes to continuity of operations during the current pandemic and in the future. Specifically, agencies should consider based on their current experiences whether:

  1. their policies and guidance related to telework are sufficient to ensure that their workforces are telework ready and balances are struck between employees' personal circumstances and work responsibilities;
  2. the extent to which their telework infrastructure, including technical support and security, is adequate to support increased telework; 
  3. procedures and standards are in place that ensure telework does not diminish organizational and employee performance; and
  4. the processes, procedures, and tracking systems to collect data provide the information needed to evaluate the use of telework.

These assessments will assist agencies in considering broader changes to their policies and procedures related to telework as employees are called back to their duty stations, says GAO.