How one small agency is grappling with the concept of ‘reopening’

When it comes to reopening — or at least resuming “more normal operations” — every agency has a different plan, timeline and approach.

But as some agencies began calling small groups of employees back to the office in late May and June, the Merit Systems Protection Board announced plans to extend telework through at least July 3.

“As an agency whose entire business is about working with the civil service and working with the merit system, we’ve tried to communicate that our employees are our greatest asset,” Tristan Leavitt, the agency’s general counsel, said in an interview. “Their health and safety is our priority, and we see their well-being as essential to our business operations.”

More time has given MSPB the space to evaluate how state reopenings are going and what impact, if any, nationwide protests have on the local health conditions. It’s also given the agency time and space to consider what safety precautions it’ll need to take once employees do return to the office, said Bill Spencer, MSPB’s acting executive director.

“This gives us a bit of a buffer to continue to assess the health environment but also do some additional planning for what kinds of things we want to have in place and things we’d want to communicate to employees,” he said.

Those extra weeks have given MSPB leaders time to think about everything from the agency’s HVAC system to setting up alternative work schedules and shifts for employees.

MSPB sent employees home on mandatory telework starting March 16. Since then, the agency has been extending mandatory telework every two weeks or so.

Throughout the pandemic, MSPB has been hosting regular meetings with their regional and field office directors, who have collected feedback from their own staff, Leavitt said.

Leavitt also serves as the agency’s acting chief executive while the board lacks members and a quorum. MSPB has lacked a quorum for more than three-and-a-half years, and it’s been without a single member since last March.

“Each of the offices has had brainstorming sessions,” he said. “We asked each of the offices to provide their feedback on what their employees thought was important to consider before reopening, in making the decision to reopen and then what things they thought were necessary or helpful once we did reopen. We’ve gathered a lot of feedback in that way and have been trying to, throughout this process, implement it as smoothly as we can.”

As both Spencer and Leavitt acknowledged, MSPB’s circumstances, in part, make some of their pandemic decisions slightly easier.

About 61% of the MSPB workforce had teleworked at least one day a week before the pandemic, which made the transition to mandatory remote work a relatively smooth one, Leavitt said.

MSPB’s e-Appeal Online platform allows employees and agencies to file electronically, though the agency has since developed protocols to allow its own employees to come into the office to process mail, faxes and other deliveries, Spencer said.

Those employees come into the office on a volunteer basis.

And many hearings have continued virtually during the pandemic, though the MSPB conducted the vast majority of its hearings through secure video and teleconference in some capacity even before the health crisis, Spencer added.

With around 200 employees spread across headquarters and six regional and two field offices, the agency’s size helps too. But it hasn’t made leading, managing and working through the pandemic any easier.

“This is a stressful time for a lot of people, and that can raise a lot of anxiety. We’re trying to be open about our own challenges,” Leavitt said. “I have five children and that’s had its own challenges in working from home. We’re trying to be empathetic with our employees and just help everyone work together in doing the best we can in accomplishing our mission. We’ve gotten really positive feedback about that both on a business level in accomplishing our mission as well as on a personal level.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

The tradition of putting birthday candles on a cake can be traced as far back as ancient Greece, where they often burned candles as offerings to the gods. Ancient Greeks used to specifically honor Artemis, goddess of the moon, by baking round cakes to symbolize the moon and placing candles on top to represent moonlight.

Source: Wonderopolis

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