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Millions of federal workers are returning to the office. Here’s what agency leaders need to do to protect them.

BY JONATHAN ALBOUM AND TIM ENRIGHT

Thousands of organizations are wrestling with whether, when, and how to bring employees back to communal workplaces. Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than inside the federal government.

With 2.1 million full-time employees spread across every state and U.S. territory, Uncle Sam remains the country’s biggest and most geographically diverse employer.

Like millions of other American workers, many federal employees have spent months working from home. But large numbers of federal employees can’t complete their work remotely; for them, Slack and Zoom are not the tools that get the job done.

Scientists working at Health and Human Services, for example, can’t sequence a gene from a home office. Intelligence analysts who deal with classified materials need to work inside specialized, highly secure environments. USDA inspectors by definition must travel to meatpacking plants, and Postal Service carriers still personally deliver the mail to your mailbox.

Within the Veterans Administration’s network of hospitals and clinics, thousands of healthcare workers never stopped reporting to their places of work. The IRS is one of the first large federal agencies to reopen its facilities nationwide, and among myriad other functions, it needs staff onsite to process paper tax returns and approve and issue refunds.

As many other federal agencies begin the process of bringing back employees, the question becomes how to do it safely and transparently.

[Read also: Reinvent government, one workflow at a time]

Focus on the human element

While the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies have issued general guidelines for reopening federal offices, there is no single solution to this challenge. And the guidelines themselves may change: A group of Senate Democrats has called for revisions to better ensure worker safety. Wherever the guidelines land, flexibility is essential.

The first step for agency leaders is to understand the unique role everyone in each operating unit plays and determine who needs to be on-site to accomplish their missions.

Once leaders have determined that, they need to consider the conditions their employees face. What phase of recovery are they in? How badly does the pandemic impact their area?

Department heads and managers should also consider individual needs. For instance, some employees who have a pre-existing condition or care for family members with compromised immune systems, would returning to work put them or loved ones at greater risk?

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