How Managers Can Plan For Employees’ Successful Return to Federal Offices

Things won’t be the same. Here are 10 tips for putting empathy into action and keeping people safe.

When I first returned from military deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the spring of 2004 and then again from Operation Enduring Freedom in the fall of 2007, I learned firsthand why the military has reintegration programs to ease soldiers back into normal life. I was single and my return was probably far easier and less complicated than returning to a spouse and kids would have been, but it was disorienting nonetheless.

It felt odd to live alone again, after months of roommates in cramped living conditions. Both times I was struck by how slow everything felt because, well, life was more slow-paced at home, and because the residual hyper-alertness from my deployments meant that I noticed every last detail of my surroundings. I walked around in slow motion, keenly aware of how uncluttered my mind now felt without my daily deployment worries, yet my senses still alert and clear. I also became aware of how much freedom I possessed—there was choice in everything. I immediately noticed how much excess and waste was in my pre-deployment life, and what a gift it now felt like to just leave my four walls and be with friends and family. Yet they’d changed, and I had changed. So we had to get to know each other again, and eventually resettled into a new us.

The military has a process for reintegrating servicemembers back into life at home after all-consuming deployments because while the return is joyful, the transition is far harder on everyone than they may expect. And while our own return to our physical office spaces after the all-consuming COVID-19 will be a relief to many, it may be far harder than we expect. 

On Monday, the Office of Management and Budget released guidance for heads of executive departments and agencies on the return to steady state operations and the reopening of federal facilities. In executing this guidance, it is important to acknowledge the anxiety that even the idea of returning to shared physical spaces will evoke for many. In developing timelines and logistics for employees’ return, we must recognize the challenges returning to the office will pose for employees.

We have all changed as a result of COVID-19. Some of us have experienced trauma. We are in different places in processing the losses we and our loved ones have experienced to our health and safety, freedom, financial and job security to name a few. Some of us may still carry deep anxiety or depression. Others may be angry. 

In fact, some of us may not return at all—we may have decided to retire early or stay home with our families for good. Tens of thousands have died from COVID-19 and many federal employees who return to work will have lost colleagues and loved ones without the benefit of traditional rituals for processing their grief. 

Some of us will have experienced changes that we want to sustain. Perhaps we spent more quality time with our kids or spent more time cooking and realized we enjoyed it. We may have spent more time communicating with elderly parents and other loved ones. Perhaps we cherished the arrival of spring and found joy in things previously overlooked. 

The experience of COVID-19 has probably led us to press “reset” on a number of things in our personal lives. Each of us will bring all of that new awareness along with us when we return to the office.

We also will have evolved as teams and organizations. Perhaps we used more virtual collaboration technology and communicated more effectively. Perhaps we learned a little more about one another through webcam glimpses of makeshift home offices. We may have become more mindful about the needs of our colleagues or our own limitations. 

Much like a deployment, we will emerge on the other side of this pandemic with new eyes and experiences, and our transition into shared physical spaces will be disorienting. Whether the return to physical spaces is weeks or months away, here are some tips for planning your organization’s transition now.

  1. First, don’t stop communicating. Sharing information about what your organization is doing to plan for reopening your physical spaces will be key. Now that OMB guidance has been issued, many will be anxious about what that means for them. Create opportunities for open dialogue as you plan your transition, and leverage your takeaways to enhance your plans.
  2. Consistent with the OMB guidance, take steps now to ensure physical spaces are fully sanitized through custodial services before any reentry, and communicate clearly and frequently about efforts to maintain cleanliness. Continue to provide ample cleaning products and hand sanitizers for employees to use in their own and shared spaces, and ensure employees are allowed to wear gloves and face masks if they wish to. This is not just to mitigate what might be a high risk of reinfections; it is also to provide psychological safety.
  3. Get creative about when and to what degree you really need to return people to office spaces in the first place. Many employees will have been working from home for weeks or even months—is it possible to provide them with more flexibility in the hours they report to the office in the future? Don’t squander the efficiencies and effectiveness you’ve just gained from working remotely. 
  4. Encourage employees to be considerate of each other and give each other more space than they would have previously. Traditional ways of reconnecting with one another after long periods of being away, such as sharing home-cooked food or going out for happy hour, may not be appropriate as we recover from a health emergency. Even well-intentioned efforts to greet each other with hugs and handshakes can be traumatic, when fear and tension may already be running high.
  5. Take a hard look at the layout of your workspace and assess any risks. Is there room for continued social distancing of at least 6 feet between employees? If not, could you rotate in-person work days to stagger use of closely-spaced seats? The OMB guidance has some tips for alternating schedules.
  6. Temporarily reconsider the use and layout of your collaboration spaces, such as conference rooms, which are often packed with furniture. Consider removing chairs from these rooms and organizing remaining chairs as a visual reminder to stay spaced apart. Even better, build upon your new virtual collaboration tools and competencies to continue hosting meetings virtually. Senior leaders play a critical role in modeling virtual collaboration; employees will follow their lead.
  7. Continue to provide regular communication about resources available to employees. HR flexibilities, the Employee Assistance Program, mental health and financial resources will be just as important during your organization’s recovery.
  8. Acknowledge that many employees didn’t have the opportunity to work from home while others did and may be facing different challenges. Make sure that you equally support the reintegration of those who had to continue working in the office along with those who were permitted to work from home.
  9. Conduct some form of an after-action review. Engage all of your staff members in a formal process of capturing how the organization responded: What worked well? What could have worked better? How effectively were you able to continue your mission and essential functions? Ask staff to reflect upon their personal and organizational takeaways after being away from the office for so long. Integrate these lessons into your organizational processes and policies and especially your continuity and pandemic plans.
  10. Be overt about helping your teams reflect upon and discuss what has changed in how they have been working together. Determine what they want to leave behind and what they want to sustain. This will help your teams bring some closure to the past and feel empowered to take control of how we move forward.

Jacquelyn Phillips leads strategy, enterprise risk management, and employee engagement for the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In addition to being an Army Reservist, she has also directed leadership development, learning, continuity and emergency management in the federal government. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the agency or the United States.