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“A race to the finish”: How the Department of Commerce created a return-to-work policy at hyperspeed

The agency was given only 72 hours to devise a plan to protect and vaccinate federal employees. Here’s how they did it.

“A race to the finish”: How the Department of Commerce created a return-to-work policy at hyperspeed

One of President Biden’s first acts on Inauguration Day was issuing an executive order on “protecting the federal workforce and requiring mask-wearing.” In no uncertain terms, he called for swift and strict compliance with the guidelines laid down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to halt the spread of COVID-19. A federal bureaucracy that had slowly ground to a halt following Election Day suddenly (but not unexpectedly) needed to protect and eventually vaccinate millions of employees.

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While every agency and department had to grapple with implementing this order “immediately,” few faced the complexity of the Department of Commerce (DoC). Its sprawling operations include the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (which includes the National Weather Service), and the Census Bureau, which had to conduct its decennial national head count door-to-door in the middle of a pandemic. It’s one thing to examine patent applications virtually, but how do you stay socially distanced inside a NOAA storm-chasing plane crossing the eyewall of a hurricane?

“These are close-quarters activities that must continue. They are life or death,” says Zack Schwartz, the head of the DoC’s COVID-19 coordination team. Asking 50,000 storm chasers, sailors, and other essential workers to simply stay home was never an option.

Fortunately, the DoC wasn’t starting from scratch. By January, Schwartz and his team—drawn from each of the department’s 13 bureaus—had nearly a year’s worth of experience keeping staffers safe during a pandemic. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the bureaus putting their employees first, making them feel taken care of,” says Kurt Bersani, deputy director and chief financial officer of DoC Enterprise Services.

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The new administration had vowed to rely more on data-driven decision-making going forward. Working with professionals at Deloitte, who could draw upon client experiences, leading practices from dozens of industries, and research on shifting workplace and technology trends from the onset of the pandemic, they began drafting a plan that would carry the DoC through to a full return to work in September, when herd immunity would presumably be within reach. The catch: They had just 72 hours to do it.

“It would be a race to the finish,” says Shamia Jenkins, a senior manager in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Washington office. Her team immediately began assembling a road map for safely reopening offices and coordinating testing, tracing, and vaccinations. Given the sweep of the DoC’s missions and services, they developed a set of guidelines that could be tailored by each bureau or even by location, reflecting local realities on the ground for each mission, rather than drafting a blanket set of policies from Washington. “The plan had to be flexible and fluid,” Jenkins says. “We needed to design for uncertainty.”

DISCIPLES OF DATA

In practice, the plan had three pillars. The first was a maximum telework policy familiar to any office worker since March 2020—why put employees in harm’s way if you didn’t have to? The second was creating rules of thumb for workplace safety—whether “workplace” meant the Herbert C. Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., or a storm-tossed ship in the Atlantic. “We looked at similar positions in private industry and what the science was telling us to make them safe,” Schwartz says. “What can you do on an airplane? What can you do on a ship? Whether it was masks or social distancing, we adapted it to fit the role and location.”

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The third piece was the trickiest: laying the groundwork for an unprecedented vaccination campaign. As winter turned to spring and vaccines became widely available, the DoC team prioritized communication and education, emphasizing employees’ freedom to choose to get vaccinated, while aggressively debunking social media misinformation. They also strove to bring in perspectives from the field, regularly inviting rank-and-file guest speakers from the bureaus, hosting town halls, and running bureauwide surveys—anything to keep staff engaged and feeling both safe and heard.

But safety was fleeting as Delta variant cases began to surge in late July, prompting President Biden to push ahead with a vaccine mandate for federal employees and throwing America’s fall reopening plans into turmoil. For the DoC, planning for uncertainty meant not only pressing pause on office-reopening plans beyond 25% capacity and prepping for a vaccination campaign but also expanding the scope of its data collection to encompass school and daycare closures and quarantines, public transit changes, and parking availability—challenges facing workers across the country. “We needed to understand who was quietly wearing the hats of caregiver, teacher, and employee,” Jenkins says.

Deloitte worked with the DoC COVID-19 Coordination team to provide the necessary insights on what was required to realistically and methodically return to work while prioritizing the health, safety, and well-being of more than 46,000 employees. The team also helped lay the groundwork for the DoC’s COVID-19 response, providing input on medical planning, facility preparedness, and community engagement by drawing upon data-driven insights to help inform the DoC’s return-to-work strategy.

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Ultimately, the team decided that a successful return to normalcy didn’t necessarily mean having everyone back at the office at once. “The pandemic accelerated changes happening across business and government organizations,” says Lucy Melvin, a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Government and Public Services practice. “Organizations are now using technologies to transform where and how work gets done and meet the evolving needs of the workforce.”

That means the NOAA’s storm chasers still need to wear masks below decks and on planes. But it’s telling that one of the federal government’s most assorted—and sprawling—departments has arrived at a more flexible and enlightened remote work policy than Wall Street. “I think we’ve gone overboard in a really good way,” Schwartz says.


The following people contributed to this article: Kurt Bersani, deputy assistant secretary for administration and Zack Schwartz, chief of staff to the acting cfo and assistant secretary for administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce and Lucy Melvin, principal, Louis Heinzer, principal, Bob Sapio, managing director, Michael Isman, managing director, Shamia Jenkins, senior manager, Randy Turkel, senior manager, and Erin Robertson, manager, at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

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As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of our legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. Deloitte shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person who relies on this publication.

Copyright © 2021 Deloitte Development LLC. All rights reserved.

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