As federal agencies continue to inch toward a return to normal operations, consideration already is being given to a “new normal” for large numbers of employees if not for entire agencies.
With ever-widening loosening of virus-related restrictions in general in some states or areas within them, some agencies have been moving in that same direction—although with differences that suggest a piecemeal approach that could last an extended time.
The VA this week announced lifted certain restrictions it had imposed on some medical care not related to the virus, such as elective surgery, at nearly two dozen medical facilities; it earlier had taken a prominent position by publicly releasing its guidance on the conditions that would have to be met to take such steps.
The IRS meanwhile has continued to offer employees incentives to return to their regular workplaces on a voluntary basis—this week assigning some 3,500 to handle phone calls about the “economic impact payments”—and several other agencies have reopened certain facilities or have restarted certain activities that had been suspended.
Others are taking actions interpreted as opening a path for doing so, such as the announcement that the inspector general’s office at DoD next week will begin examining “whether DoD officials cleaned and disinfected DoD facilities that were occupied by individuals suspected of, or confirmed as” having the virus.
However, broad and general returns to prior practices do not appear likely. For example, even as it moved to ease restrictions at some facilities, the VA said that it “will continue to maximize the personalized virtual care options of telehealth, phone consults and wellness checks, as these services have been a valuable link to veterans during this challenging time.”
Also, the Defense Health Agency, which operates medical facilities there, has said that once those facilities start lifting restrictions, they “are encouraged to continue any new operations implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, which have resulted in better performance, improved outcomes and higher patient satisfaction.
DHA plans to learn from best practices implemented” during the pandemic that support goals of “increasing patient and staff engagement and satisfaction, enhancing readiness, reducing costs and improving outcomes,” it said.
Officials from numerous agencies meanwhile have raised the prospect that increased telework, for those whose jobs allow for it, may be part of a new normal, given that agencies have expanded IT capability to support it, the increased familiarity with it, and the productivity gains that have been reported in some places.