By Ann Boehm, August 19, 2020
Here we are, in Month Six of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and not much has changed. Many of you are still teleworking. Some are gradually returning to the workplace. Some of you never left the workplace. Regardless of your status, there’s no doubt that the day-to-day existence of your job is different and likely will stay different for a while. That’s why I think it’s a good time to work on a to do list that is specifically focused on the oddities of working through a pandemic. So here goes:
1 – Get moving on performance and disciplinary actions, and investigations. When the virus hit and people were suddenly told not to come to work, many agencies put any performance and disciplinary actions on hold. Same for investigations. The logical thinking was that everyone would be back to work pretty soon, so why not wait until then to move on serious personnel matters. Now we realize that “pretty soon” is still not happening. It’s a bit odd to serve a proposed removal virtually, I realize, but there’s nothing illegal about it. Employees who want an oral reply can do so virtually. And decisions should certainly be issued sooner rather than later. It may seem unkind to remove an employee during the pandemic, but leaving a proposal hanging for too long is hard on everyone – the employee, the supervisor, and the co-workers. Investigations may be different in the virtual world, but technology will allow you to interview people and review documents. We don’t know when this will end, so don’t keep putting things off.
2 – Assess what’s working and what’s not in the virtual world. It’s very possible that the virtual world is making your workers more efficient. Or it may have negatively impacted your office’s ability to perform its mission. It is important for you to do an honest assessment of what is working and what is not. You may have a whole new appreciation for teleworking if you see that your workers are more efficient. And if you demonstrate that some mission requirements just cannot be done virtually, you will be better able to determine which employees need to return to the workplace. The key is to be honest.
3 – Review performance plans. Pandemic or not, employees are still expected to perform. That being said, you need to review the critical elements in your employees’ performance plans to determine whether they are accurate expectations during the pandemic. You may need to do some tweaking to reflect the reality of telework or safety issues.
4 – Be aware of your agency’s return-to-work policies and make sure your employees know about them. CDC guidance. Agency guidance. Department guidance. The safety requirements for returning to work will include things like temperature taking, sanitizing, and of course, the controversial wearing of masks. Find out what policies are out there. Read them. And make sure your employees receive them.
5- If you supervise bargaining unit employees, read what the national unions have said about return to work. The national unions are insisting on strict workplace safety protocols. AFGE, for example, has a list of 10 return-to-work principles posted on its website. It’s important to know what the national unions are saying so that you can work effectively with the local bargaining units to ensure all employees are complying with workplace safety protocols.
6 – Develop a plan for how to handle employees who do not comply with safety protocols. You can pretty much plan on some employees not wanting to wear a mask. Or they may not wear them properly. What are you going to do when that occurs? Figure out a plan. Warnings will probably be a wise first step. And you may need to take disciplinary actions. No one said this would be easy, folks.
7 – Take advantage of any spare time you have and read agency policies you may not have read for a while (like Leave, Misconduct, Investigations, Performance). When I conduct training, I like to remind supervisors, and HR specialists, and counsel to read agency policies. Too often we get complacent and forget to review the policies we think we know so well. If you are still teleworking, use downtime to look over some of the agency policies most relevant to what you do.
8 – Read the OPM guidance on COVID-19 Leave. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act created a new type of leave that is specific to COVID-19. OPM issued detailed guidance about the leave. Your agency may have provided supplemental guidance. You are going to have employees who get COVID-19. You will have employees who need to be quarantined due to exposure to someone with COVID-19. Get ahead of this by reading available guidance on how to handle employee leave if any of this occurs.
9 – Talk to your employees and find out how they feel about their current work situation and return to work. One of the most surprising things to me about the pandemic is how wrong I have been in predicting other people’s perception of danger during the pandemic. Some people who I thought would be very worried are not worried at all, and others I figured would be happy-go-lucky are terrified. You really cannot guess how anyone is feeling about their own personal risks and family member risks. We can assume, based upon what I read in the media, that most people are very concerned about the safety of being at work. It’s important that you find out how your employees feel about returning to the workplace. They may need to come to work despite their fears, but at least you will know in advance about their worries and be better able to manage the situation.
10 – Talk to your supervisor about your concerns and make sure you understand what’s expected of you as the pandemic continues. Pretty much everyone except the President has a supervisor. Our training focuses mostly on how supervisors interact with the employees who work for them. But it’s also important for supervisors to talk to their supervisors about their feelings during the pandemic. Don’t operate in a vacuum. Boehm@FELTG.co