Profiles in Improvement
Return to the Office
The COVID-19: Return to the Office category measures the extent to which employees feel that their organization provided clear communication, guidance and support around the transition to hybrid or in-person work, and how employees assess their agency’s prioritization of safety during this transition.
We spoke to several agency leaders about the barriers and opportunities they faced in 2021, and the strategies they implemented to excel in this category. These strategies offer vital lessons to other federal leaders.
The return-to-office process has not been straightforward, fast or easy for federal agencies, and every team has planned for and experienced it differently. The agencies we spoke to faced logistical, communication, and health and safety management challenges when it came time to transition to in-person or hybrid work. Officials had to find ways to continue executing their mission while navigating changing protocols and taking care of staff.
Returning to the office meant understanding and implementing new policies on vaccination access and records, sanitation, travel and face masks—not to mention additional challenges in the form of dependent and family care. It also required rethinking practices around communication, work flexibilities and many other innovations generated during the pandemic.
“While we appreciate high scores, we focus less on scores for scores sake and more on impact, which means continued focus on employee engagement, transparency and frequent communication.”
Senior official at the General Services Administration
Strategies for Success
- Develop agile policy: The Department of Health and Human Services took a flexible approach to new and shifting policies around health and safety. Throughout the pandemic, agencies have responded quickly to changing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — ensuring that employees were informed about mask usage, vaccination requirements and access, and telework status. HHS looked forward by designing a phased approach for the return to the workplace, which included a “Welcome Back” town hall event in April 2022 that facilitated knowledge sharing between employees who had worked in person throughout the pandemic and those who were returning on-site.
- Commit to understanding the employee experience: The General Services Administration dedicated significant time and energy to understanding employee challenges and questions as part of the return-to-office transition. Leaders held regular check-ins to share information during the pandemic, conducted surveys to improve their communication strategies and organized coffee chats with front-line staff to hear suggestions on how the agency could address issues. The Office of Human Resources Management also worked with agency subcomponents one-on-one to ensure they had the resources and guidance to improve their employees’ experience. By asking questions and soliciting advice from staff at all levels, GSA and its subcomponents have been able to plan more personalized return-to-office strategies.
“To continue to strengthen our workforce culture, it’s imperative that our supervisors and employees acknowledge and accept the changes, challenges and triumphs ahead of us as we transition.”
Senior official from the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security
The return-to-office process for agencies is just beginning. Leaders and staff will have to continue to address challenges, develop iterative policy and practice to make sure that the health and safety of all employees remains a top priority, and be capable of equitably offering flexibilities tailored to the employee experience.
- Making plans: HHS developed a new long-term strategy for improving performance and engagement—the Workforce Engagement Strategic Plan. The plan will be used to produce more resources and tools for supporting and improving the employee experience, especially in the hybrid workplace.
- Continual learning: In addition to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, GSA conducts shorter regular surveys to keep a line of communication open with staff and to learn about their experience as they continue to transition to in-person work. The agency aims to follow up on employee ideas and further prioritize equity and belonging moving forward.
- Provide resources: The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate is developing a Hybrid Workforce Toolbox to help employees transition back to the office or into hybrid work. A collaborative effort, it will give individual offices an opportunity to share best practices, and will provide employees with worksheets, presentations and tactical lessons to help guide them through the return-to-office process.