The Challenges of Reopening Local Government May 22, 2020

Katrina Washington

Woman wearing mask


“Regardless of the degree or the extent of the changes, it is crucial for employers to recognize that many employees have evolved and will bring new attitudes, perceptions, emotions, and information with them upon return. There will exist a range and spectrum of emotions such as anger, joy, depression and anxiety that must be addressed.”

States have begun the process of loosening COVID-19 related restrictions and re-opening. For many, this is only the beginning, as these processes entail an array of phases and steps that require the initiation of newly-developed, detail-oriented approaches. As of May 22, 50 states have reopened to some extent. As national COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the majority of state and local officials are continuing to deliberate and debate on issues surrounding mitigation and containment of the virus. COVID-19 has manifested in many ways and in a long, complex, and infinite myriad of circumstances. As employers address the convolutions of reopening, not only is emphasis placed on economic recovery and clients, but also, of necessity, on the wellbeing, physical and mental health of employees. The response to COVID-19 has become characterized by complexities that employers and managers alike, must address.

Katrina Washington
Katrina Washington

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) have issued guidelines and provided a framework for organizations, leadership, protection of employees and efficient operations. However, it is of upmost importance to recognize not only the physical protection of employees is critical, but to recognize that the mental state of individuals returning to the workplace will need protection. While these national guidelines allow for analysis, assessment and a phased approach to resume normal operations and activities, they also define parameters for the control of COVID-19. Specifically, they highlight the importance of continued telework that is appropriate and flexible, the creation of work "cohorts", strong sanitation practices, social distancing and protection of the "vulnerable population".

Society has certainly evolved as COVID-19 has changed the workforce and the manner in which work is completed and has essentially changed employees and citizenry, and the expectations of both groups associated with local governments. Some changes are overt, whereas, others are subtle. Regardless of the degree or the extent of the changes, it is crucial for employers to recognize that many employees have evolved and will bring new attitudes, perceptions, emotions, and information with them upon return. There will exist a range and spectrum of emotions such as anger, joy, depression and anxiety that must be addressed. Overall, new information will be conveyed and expressed that will require different approaches for a heightened sense of decoding and deciphering.

Inevitably, COVID-19 has impacted each individual in some manner. As such, reintegration into the workforce will be challenging as each employee adjusts to their own unique set of challenges. Not only have individuals evolved, but perhaps teams have evolved in the way they communicate and collaborate with one another. Careful consideration will need to be undertaken for effective reintegration into the workforce or work environment. To help with reintegration, distinct and specific phases, steps, and procedures will need to be enacted. It is important to recognize that many employees have experienced trauma, loss, and insecurities and reintegration must directly address it. Reintegration strategies and techniques are necessary for all employees; those that worked remotely and those essential employees that continued to report to the workplace. As employees return to work, it is important for employers to exercise and be cognizant of the following:

  • Open Communication. Communication is central and key. Employers should encourage an "open dialogue" with employees and continuously provide on-going communication regarding the resources, policies and procedures, and programs available to employees such as HR flexibilities, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), coping strategies, mental health, etc. It is critical to continuously communicate plans, updates and processes.
  • Clarity of Guidelines. Although there is a plethora of guidelines in existence offering suggestions for physical safety and steps to maintain the safety of employees once they return, alignment with Federal and State guidelines is consistent with "best practices". Employers should take steps for thorough physical cleaning, disinfection, safe distancing, etc. not only for physical safety, but psychological affirmations. It is also critical that employees feel "safe" and believe that employers are taking all the necessary steps and precautions to protect them. Don’t underestimate the power and importance of employees feeling safe and protected. This may be the single most important factor in determining whether employees will not only decide to return, but if they will remain for the "long haul". In addition, it is vital for organizations to adhere to State and local mandates during the transition back to the workplace.
  • Incorporate Flexibility. Be creative regarding flexibility. Ease the burden of transition and incorporate flexible telework provisions. Be aware that it may not be necessary for all employees to return to the workplace. It may be more beneficial to allow some employees to continue to work remotely. For employees that must return, employers should consider offering staggering and alternative work schedules to decrease the amount of exposure to others as much as possible. Employers should constantly revisit and assess telework policies to recognize the overall benefit and impact on the recruitment and retention of employees.
  • Encourage Consideration. Encourage employees to be considerate of others and have empathy for one another. All employees must be reintroduced to a workforce that has possibly changed in some manner. In a time with high anxiety and fears, employees will need to be re-engaged and learn to work with co-workers again in a different manner due to new restraints and limitations.
  • Layout of Physical Work Spaces. Assess and evaluate the layout of physical spaces. Analyze and assess potential risks and hazards. View collaboration sites such as conference rooms, meeting rooms, etc. and determine if there is a need for repurposing and reconfigurations.
  • Reintegration of Employees. Acknowledge that some employees were not afforded the opportunity to work remotely and try to successfully blend both types of employees. Some employees may have experienced a new "awareness" and "awakening" that they may want to sustain. This may involve new sets of processes and responsibilities that are incumbent on employers to address. Others may have a new vision, perspective, and lessons learned they are eager to share, enact and apply.
  • Assessment and Review. Conduct a meaningful review and assessment. Proactively engage employees in the process to reflect on things that went well during remote working conditions. Request that staff offer personal takeaways regarding the processes and suggest techniques or processes that were successful. Consider ways that those techniques and processes can continue to be utilized.

Undoubtedly, public servants have a unique leadership role in supporting the American people. In this time of crisis, successful leadership is fundamental. It is imperative that unwavering leadership, that will not falter or succumb to the perils of this pandemic, is enacted. Leaders need to exhibit steadfast dedication to the safety and health of their employees. Ultimately, organizations, employers, and leaders will be characterized by not only the service they provide to their clients, but the manner in which they serve their employees. Eventually, success will be measured by the application of lessons learned and the transition of employees back into a workforce that has undergone various changes. Given the diversity of workforce missions, geographic locations, individual needs, and organization structures, successful transition and reintegration will require continued diligence, dedication, and flexibility.

Reference:
https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/04/white-house-instructs-agencies-begin-process-returning-some-employees-their-offices/164757/
https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/04/how-managers-can-plan-employees-successful-return-federal-offices/164771/


The HR Consulting division of the Government & Economic Development Institute (GEDI) at Auburn University invites you to participate in future topics and discussions by submitting comments, questions, and issues that your local government would like to have addressed, to mariatamblyn@auburn.edu.


ABOUT GEDI: As a part of University Outreach, the Government and Economic Development Institute's mission is promoting effective government policy and management, civic engagement, economic prosperity, and improved quality of life for the State of Alabama and its communities.

Katrina Washington is a Human Resources Consultant with Auburn University’s Government and Economic Development Institute. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Adult Education at Auburn University. She can be reached at (334) 844-4735 or ktw0019@auburn.edu.

Last Updated: May 22, 2020