Navigating the Plan to Open Up the Workplace

In April, the White House released guidelines for its plan to reopen government and commercial operations after COVID-19. Called “Opening Up America Again,” the plan sets forth a three-phased approach to reinstating regular workforce procedures. What does this plan look like, and how are organizations being prepared to make the transition?

Opening Up America Again

Before agencies can proceed to the “phased comeback” approach, their state or region must satisfy a set of public health criteria set by the CDC, including a “downward trajectory” of COVID-19 and related cases over a 14-day period, and robust testing programs in place for health care workers. 

Phase One encourages maximum social distancing for “vulnerable individuals” (individuals at greater risk of contracting COVID-19) and sustained social distancing measures for public and work spaces. Phase One suggests employers gradually return employees to work in segments while continuing telework procedures when applicable. In a recent memo (M-20-23), OPM and OMB suggested that a Phase One plan might, as an example, “place the cohort or team on alternating schedules of five days in the office and 15 days of telework per month.”

Phase Two is encouraged to begin when the gating criteria has been satisfied twice with no rebound of COVID-related cases. The second phase allows for the reopening of schools and other public workspaces and venues. Social distancing is still encouraged and recommended for vulnerable individuals, and employers are still recommended to follow telework procedures. M-20-23 defines how telework should be determined for government agencies during the multi-phased approach.

The final phase can be implemented when the gating criteria has been satisfied three times with no evidence of COVID-19 rebound. Phase 3 encourages all remaining workplaces to reopen with sanitation protocols in place. Vulnerable individuals may resume public interaction but should still take precautionary measures. Telework is no longer required for employers.

How Organizations Can Prepare for the Return to Work

Much of the workforce faces anxiety about returning to the workplace. A recent study found that two-thirds of Americans are uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to work at this time. Employees want to be assured that precautionary measures will be in place to ensure their health and safety.

As HUD OIG strategist Jacquelyn Phillips suggests, managers can do their part to facilitate a smooth transition for employees. This includes maintaining open channels of communication between management, HR, and employees to ensure that procedural changes are understood and that employees are aware of the resources available to them.

Phillips also suggests, as recommended in M-20-23, that employers get creative with workspace arrangements to ensure social distancing measures are met in the early phases. Certain regular workplace arrangements, such as meeting in a conference room, might still be unwise to implement in the early phases of the comeback.

Looking to the Future

Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for much of the American workforce, but organizations stand to benefit a great deal from the new procedural changes. This includes having a more mature telework policy than many previously held, and adopting online conference platforms like Zoom to facilitate better communication.

For our part, AINS is committed to following guidelines set by the federal government and the State of Maryland.