Trump Administration Develops Governmentwide Office Reopening Guidelines, With Contractor Help

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Masks, distancing and sensors to track employee movement are all part of GSA’s non-binding coronavirus recommendations.

The Trump administration has put together a set of recommendations that agencies throughout government can use when bringing employees back to their offices, contracting with a private sector firm to compile the suggestions. 

The administration has faced criticism from Congress and watchdogs for its failure to create a comprehensive plan to safely return employees to their offices, but the General Services Administration this summer quietly paid the architecture and design firm Gensler $128,000 to develop a “comprehensive federal playbook” to develop such strategies. The Return to Work Strategy Book is now available on GSA’s website, featuring an array of tips for agencies to follow including requiring masks, enforcing distancing, bringing employees to the office on alternate days or weeks and installing sensors to track employee movement and avoid overcrowding. 

GSA made clear its recommendations were not directives that agencies must follow, nor were they intended as step-by-step or one-size-fits-all guides. Gensler referred questions about its work to GSA. Pam Pennington, a GSA spokeswoman, called the return-to-workplace document a “framework for discussion” in helping agencies bring employees back to federal buildings. 

“This strategy book captures key learnings from the pandemic response and provides a framework for strategic discussion on a return to facilities that enables client agencies to return to operations in an efficient and effective manner,” Pennington said, “and is intended to complement information from other federal resources.”

Another company, PLASTARC, peer reviewed the strategy book, saying it focused on “behavioral elements of office reentry” to ensure employees felt protected and adequately bought into the restrictions in place. 

GSA said its guidelines were a “compilation of information from across government and industry” that could be applied to both government-owned buildings and leased spaces. It encouraged agencies to remain flexible and adapt their plans to local guidelines. Agencies should consider providing masks and other personal protective equipment to employees, GSA said, and let their workforces know what will be provided. 

They should determine if enough parking spaces are available as more employees are likely to drive, and measure how many workers can reasonably fit in a physically distanced office. GSA provided layouts for offices that are 30%, 50% and 75% full, but suggested agencies alter the number of employees allowed into their workstations for each return phase as spacing requires. The federal government’s property manager did not give specific measurements for physical distancing, saying it wanted its guidelines to remain relevant as public health recommendations evolved.  

Agencies should replace in-person meetings with virtual ones when possible, GSA said, and leave doors open and limit the number of participants when physical attendance is necessary. Fewer chairs in common areas such as conference rooms would reduce risks, while outdoor spaces could substitute for meeting rooms. 

GSA emphasized the importance of individual responsibility, suggesting agencies provide some supplies so employees could disinfect their personal spaces and that workers stagger their use of restrooms. The agency has modified its cleaning contracts but said additional services are unnecessary as physical distancing and mask use are “considered to be sufficient protection.” GSA said it would also handle other structural changes, such as revamping heating and air conditioning systems to allow for proper ventilation and installing more touchless doorways and devices. 

Agencies should adapt their entry points and consider implementing one-way corridors, GSA said. The facility security committees of each building will have to meet and vote on whether screening and other safety protocols are implemented at entrances. Clear shields can act as effective barriers between individual desks, at reception and to adjust open floor plans, GSA said. Individual teams should group together to “limit intermingling” in the office, while agencies should cordon off certain group spaces such as breakrooms. Water coolers should be removed and agencies should instead hand out water bottles, according to the guidelines. 

Staggered scheduling can reduce the number of employees in the office at one time, GSA said, suggesting agencies implement a reservation system for employees to track how many workers are coming in each day. No desk should be used by multiple employees on the same day, however, as that would not allow for adequate disinfecting. 

Initial concerns that the Trump administration would rush federal employees back to their offices to prove the country was getting back to normal have proven largely unfounded. Lawmakers have accused the administration of unsafely requiring employees to end telework, though a majority of those who were sent to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic remain there. 

Still, several agencies across government have begun slowly bringing employees back to their offices, and the Defense Department has allowed up to 80% of employees who report to the Pentagon to return. At least 16 different inspectors general have launched investigations into their agencies' return-to-the-office plans. The Government Accountability Office has faulted the Trump administration for failing to deliver a comprehensive plan for reopening offices, while the General Services Administration IG cited the agency for failing to notify its agency-tenants when employees in government-owned buildings test positive for COVID-19. In its new guidelines, GSA vowed to notify the appropriate contacts within 24 hours of learning about an exposure. 

About three-quarters of federal workers remain in telework status, according to a recent survey conducted by the Government Business Council, the research arm of Government Executive, with 63% teleworking full time. Of those working remotely, nearly one-in-five expected to remain out of their offices for at least another year. Just 10% expected to return in the next two months.

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