How the Commerce Department Created a Return


One of President Biden’s first acts on inauguration day was to issue an executive order on “Federal Workforce Protection and Mask Requirement.” In no uncertain terms, he called for swift and strict adherence to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop the spread of COVID-19. A federal bureaucracy that had slowly come to a halt after election day suddenly (but not unexpectedly) had to protect and ultimately vaccinate millions of employees.

While every agency and department has had to tackle the implementation of this order “immediately”, few have 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 has had to conduct its decennial national count door-to-door in the midst of ‘a pandemic. It’s one thing to virtually screen patent applications, but how do you stay social distanced inside a NOAA fighter jet going through the wall of a hurricane’s eye?

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

Fortunately, the DoC was not starting from scratch. As of January, Schwartz and his team, drawn from each of the department’s 13 offices, had nearly a year of experience keeping staff safe during a pandemic. “One thing that hasn’t changed is that offices put their employees first, making them feel cared for,” says Kurt Bersani, deputy director and CFO of DoC Enterprise Services.

The new administration had promised to rely more on data-driven decision-making in the future. By working with professionals at Deloitte, who could draw on customer experiences, leading practices from dozens of industries, and research on changing trends in the workplace and in technology since the start of the pandemic, they began drafting a plan that would lead the DoC to a full return to work in September, when collective immunity would presumably be within reach. The catch: they only had 72 hours to do it.

“It would be a race to finish,” said Shamia Jenkins, senior executive in the Washington office of Deloitte Consulting LLP. His team immediately began building a roadmap to reopen offices safely and coordinate testing, tracing and vaccinations. Given the breadth of the DoC’s missions and services, they developed a set of guidelines that could be adapted by each office or even by location, reflecting local realities on the ground for each mission, rather than drafting a set. Washington policy general. “The plan had to be flexible and fluid,” Jenkins says. “We had to design for the uncertainty.”


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 at risk if you didn’t have to? The second was to create rules of thumb for workplace safety, whether the term “workplace” refers to the Herbert C. Hoover building in Washington, DC, or a storm-battered ship in the Atlantic. “We looked at similar positions in private industry and what the science was telling us to make them safe,” Schwartz said. “What can you do on a plane? What can you do on a ship? Whether it’s masks or social distancing, we’ve tailored it to role and location. “

The third piece was the trickiest: laying the foundations for an unprecedented vaccination campaign. As winter gave way to spring and vaccines became widely available, the DoC team prioritized communication and education, with an emphasis on the freedom of employees to choose to be made. vaccinate, while aggressively debunking social media misinformation. They have also strived to bring perspectives to the field, regularly inviting keynote speakers from the base of the offices, holding town halls and conducting office-wide surveys, all to keep staff on board. engaged and feels both safe and heard.

But security was fleeting as cases of Delta variants began to escalate in late July, prompting President Biden to move forward with a vaccine tenure for federal employees and upset plans to reopen in the fall of America. For the DoC, planning for uncertainty meant not only a pause in plans to reopen offices beyond 25% capacity and preparation for an immunization campaign, but also expanding the scope of its data collection to encompass school and daycare closures and quarantines, changes in transit, and parking availability — challenges facing workers across the country. “We needed to understand who was quietly wearing the caregiver, teacher and employee hats,” Jenkins explains.

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

In the end, the team decided that a successful return to normal doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is back in the office at the same time. “The pandemic has accelerated the changes that are occurring in businesses and government organizations,” says Lucy Melvin, Practice Director of Government and Utilities at Deloitte Consulting LLP. “Organizations are now using technology to transform where and how work is done and meet the evolving needs of the workforce. “

This means that NOAA storm chasers must always wear masks under decks and on airplanes. But it’s telling that one of the federal government’s most diverse and sprawling departments has come up with a more flexible and enlightened remote work policy than Wall Street. “I think we’ve gone too far in a really good way,” says Schwartz.

The following people contributed to this article: Kurt Bersani, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Administration and Zack Schwartz, Chief of Staff to the Acting CFO and Assistant Secretary of Administration at the US Department of Commerce and Lucy Melvin, Director, Louis Heinzer, Director, Bob Sapio, Managing Director, Michael Isman, Managing Director, Shamia Jenkins, Senior Executive, Randy Turkel, Senior Director, and Erin Robertson, Director, at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

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