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Federal Agencies Begin Planning For The Return To The Office

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The federal government, which is this country's largest employer, is starting to return many employees to their offices. White House staffers have been told to come back next month. What is not clear is just how many workers across the government will come in and how many will stay home. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Biden administration has told agencies to submit plans for what it calls the safe reentry of federal employees to the physical workplace by next month. It's a big job.

TERESA GERTON: This is really complicated.

NAYLOR: Teresa Gerton is president of the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonpartisan group that advises government leaders.

GERTON: 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? So it is not as easy as flipping a switch and just saying everybody back.

NAYLOR: It's not clear how many government employees were able to work from home during the pandemic. A lot of federal workers, TSA and Border Patrol officers, for instance, had no choice but to remain onsite. Jeff Neal, a former head of Human Resources at the Department of Homeland Security, estimates that a little under half of the federal workforce have jobs in which they could work from home, although it's likely far fewer did. As for what comes next, Neal says it's probably going to be a hybrid.

JEFF NEAL: What I think we're going to see is something that's somewhere between what we had pre-pandemic and what we have now. I think they're going to - 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.

NAYLOR: 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 chapter that represents social security workers. He says the biggest concern with reopening Social Security offices is safety for employees and the public.

RALPH DE JULIIS: In many parts of the country, people aren't vaccinated. 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.

NAYLOR: Aside from issues such as ensuring proper ventilation for workers and the public at federal offices, Jeff Neal, the former HR official, says there are other concerns for managers, including morale.

NEAL: How do I feel if I can't work from home because of my job, but you get to work from home all the time? You don't have to pay for child care. You don't have to commute. You don't have to spend, you know, two hours a day getting to and from work. That could create some morale issues.

NAYLOR: Still, Teresa Gerton says while there may be problems to overcome, there is also the chance for improvements for federal employees and on how services are delivered to the public.

GERTON: It's an opportunity to fundamentally reimagine what it means to work for the federal government. And again, it's an opportunity to kind of 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.

NAYLOR: One thing seems certain - it's going to take a while to establish what is the new normal for federal employees and the public they serve. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "DELPHINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.