The agency’s open floorplans and other concerns make it difficult to reopen offices, but GSA’s telework culture has kept operations running smoothly, according to an agency official.
]The General Services Administration put together a task force to help the agency decide when and how to reopen its offices as counties and states across the country begin to reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
While GSA is preparing to eventually reopen, the agency is in no rush, according to Deputy Administrator Allison Fahrenkopf Brigati.
“We’re not in any hurry at GSA,” she said during a remote interview Thursday with Dcode, a D.C.-based tech accelerator focused on government. “We can do this remotely; we’ve done it remotely now for going on eight weeks. We’re not going to just bring people back in just to do it. It’s got to be right and it’s got to be safe for our workforce.”
Brigati said GSA’s transition to maximum telework has been relatively smooth, as the agency was well-positioned for the new normal.
“I think it was 85% of our workforce was already telework ready,” she said. “By that I mean they had the training and they had the agreement in place to telework. For us, we already had the majority of our workforce that, at least, teleworked occasionally, some all the time.”
But having all 11,000-plus employees teleworking at the same time was a new challenge.
“About a week before we went to mandatory telework … we did a practice day,” Brigati said. “We wanted to try to break the system to ensure that, if and when, we would be ready to go to a full telework culture. Nothing broke. Everything worked as it was supposed to. We needed to do some tweaks but we knew, once we had done that practice day, that we were in really good shape.”
Brigati said the biggest issue was too many people logging in to the agency’s virtual private networks, or VPNs, and staying logged in all day.
“What we realized is, not everyone needs to be on VPN all day long. In fact, almost nobody does,” she said.
The key, Brigati said, was to have constant communication from leadership—including GSA Chief Information Officer David Shive—from the start of the crisis. That included hearing from agency leadership, as well as communicating to them, as the management team had the least amount of telework experience and the biggest learning curve.
“We’ve had daily communications going out to educate people on the best ways to work from home,” Brigati said.
Decisions on whether to open specific GSA offices will have to be determined at the local level, she said. However, GSA leadership is giving branch offices some guidance.
“You have to look at is public transportation operable? If it’s not, are there places for people to park? Is daycare open; are schools open; are camps open? Because you can’t leave the kids at home alone. Are restaurants open? One of the things we’ve been hearing is you don’t want to have your kitchens and community areas in the building open. So, if you can’t do that and bring your food and you can’t get food externally, then that’s going to make for a really long day without anything to eat,” she offered as examples.
For GSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., leadership also has to consider the building’s open office floorplan, in which employees share workspaces rather than having a dedicated cubicle for each person, also known as “hoteling.” Brigati noted this has been a growing trend among federal agencies trying to lower overhead costs—many of which are now reaching out to GSA about how to reverse those decisions.
“We don’t have the unlimited funds to clean every single workstation every single day after somebody leaves, and we have a second person coming in the next day,” she said. “We’re looking at all of that as part of our task force. … We’re looking at that just internally at GSA, but we’re also answering those same questions throughout the federal government.”
Ultimately, there is no one answer for reopening offices across government, but it will happen over time, in a deliberate manner.
That said, GSA is preparing for this new reality to remain, at least in parts, after the crisis passes.
“You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. There’s going to be a lot of people who just want to continue this full-on telework mode. I think we’re going to have to adapt to that. There are a lot of people who really like this flexibility,” Brigati said, noting there are many who would prefer to have more social interaction during their workdays, as well.
She said having that underlying telework infrastructure and culture is a great recruitment tool, as well.
“Particularly at the entry-level because you have college grads that don’t necessarily want to work in an office every day,” she said.
That said, there are many who are eager to get back to a more social workplace.
“In a lot of ways, it’s a little lonely for people,” Brigati said. “I would imagine that people do enjoy actually being in meetings with each other. But, by the sounds of it, that’s going to be a long time coming—where we can all sit in a conference room with 20 people.”
Editor’s note: The headline has been updated.