Review of NSF's Plans and Procedures for Employees' Return to Headquarters

Published by the National Science Foundation, Office of Inspector General on 2020-11-20.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                        National Science Foundation • Office of Inspector General
                           2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia 22314


DATE:                 November 20, 2020

TO:                   Wonzie L. Gardner
                      Office Head
                      Office of Information & Resource Management

                      Peggy Gartner
                      Acting Deputy Office Head
                      Office of Information & Resource Management

FROM:                 Mark Bell
                      Assistant Inspector General
                      Office of Audits

SUBJECT:              Report No. OIG 21-6-001, Review of NSF’s Plans and Procedures for
                      Employees’ Return to Headquarters

In response to a June 15, 2020 request from the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and
Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, we conducted a review, as a routine activity, of
NSF’s plans for returning employees to its headquarters building during the Coronavirus Disease 2019
(COVID-19) pandemic. We found NSF’s plans to be reasonable, prudent, and consistent with best
practices as well as Federal and state COVID-19 related guidance on reopening businesses. As such,
this memorandum does not contain recommendations.

We appreciate the courtesies and assistance NSF staff provided during this review. If you have any
questions, please contact Mark Bell, Assistant Inspector General for Audits, at mbell@nsf.gov.

Objective, Scope, & Methodology

The objective of this review was to determine whether NSF was employing best practices and existing
guidance when deciding whether or when to require Federal employees and contractors to return to the
office. To accomplish our objective, we:

   •   Reviewed Federal and state guidance related to COVID-19 issued between March 1, 2020, and
       July 31, 2020. This guidance included Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and
       Occupational Safety and Health Administration best practices, Forward Virginia reopening
       guidance, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memorandum M-20-23, Aligning
       Federal Agency Operations with the National Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.
      •   Reviewed NSF plans and supplementary documentation on agency operations related to
          the COVID-19 pandemic.
      •   Evaluated NSF’s reopening plans against Federal and state guidance.
      •   Met with NSF officials and staff involved in reopening decisions and planning, including
          representatives from the:
              o Office of Information and Resource Management;
              o Office of Budget, Finance, and Award Management; and
              o Office of the Director.
      •   Reviewed results of NSF employee surveys.

We provided a draft of this memorandum to NSF management for review on November 18,
2020. In response, NSF provided clarifying comments but indicated overall agreement with the

NSF’s Use of Remote Work to Ensure Continuity of Federal Government Services

On March 16, NSF instructed all telework-ready employees to telework to the greatest extent
possible and to follow the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance to prevent illness and recognize
symptoms. According to OMB Memorandum M-20-23, agency leaders “must continue to ensure
continuity in delivery of Federal government services, protect the health and safety of the
Federal workforce, and provide Federal government leadership and momentum as an impetus
toward a broader national return to normalcy.”

We determined NSF’s plans and actions aligned with this directive. Despite restricting access to
its headquarters building, NSF continued to successfully execute its mission through telework
and virtual grant review panels. For example, while working remotely, NSF staff successfully
responded to the surge of inquiries and correspondence associated with Rapid Response
Research (RAPID) awards. NSF ultimately funded more than 400 RAPID projects, ranging from
modeling the spread of COVID-19 to developing new materials for medical masks.

NSF equipped most of its staff to work remotely to ensure continuity of operations when it
moved its headquarters from Arlington to Alexandria, Virginia, in 2017. The Foundation further
refined its telework capabilities during the summer of 2019, when many of the Metro stations
near NSF’s building were closed for several months. NSF’s tools for remote work, including
Seamless Mobile Computing and a Virtual Private Network, were in place before access to the
building was suspended in April and enabled staff to securely and reliably access NSF’s internal
network, applications, and files from their homes. NSF’s Division of Information Systems
moved quickly to provide staff with processes and technologies as they transitioned to an all-
remote work environment.

NSF’s Multi-phased Plan to Return to Its Headquarters Building

In May 2020, the CDC stated that all employers need to consider how best to decrease the spread
of COVID-19 and lower the impact in the workplace. 1 Specifically, considerations should

    Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 2020

include activities to prevent and reduce transmission among employees, maintain healthy
business operations, and maintain a healthy work environment. Additionally, in May 2020, the
CDC provided mitigation strategies for the level of community transmission or impact of
COVID-19, acknowledging that as organizations gradually open after the COVID-19 related
slowdown, they will need to consider a variety of measures for keeping people safe. 2 The CDC
advised that these considerations include practices for scaling up operations, safety actions (e.g.,
cleaning and disinfection, social distancing), monitoring possible reemergence of illness, and
maintaining health operations. The guidance gives multiple options for safety measures from
which organizations can choose to best meet their needs.

The OMB Memorandum M-20-23 also stated that the return to normal operations should align
with a geographic area’s respective phase in the return to normal operations, while also
accounting for agency operational needs, as applicable. As part of easing business restrictions for
all business sectors, the Virginia Governor issued guidance for physical distancing, enhanced
cleaning and disinfection, and enhanced workplace safety, including:

    •   encouraging telework whenever possible;
    •   screening employees;
    •   using face coverings where 6 feet of physical distance is not possible;
    •   establishing of practices for physical distancing, including providing clear
        communication and signage;
    •   limiting occupancy of physical spaces; and
    •   routine cleaning and disinfecting of high contact areas and hard surfaces.

NSF’s plan to return to the building includes three phases that are consistent with CDC guidance;
OMB guidelines for the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area; and Virginia’s
guidelines. 3 Phase 1 began June 8, 2020. It allowed access to the building only for mission
essential functions that could not be performed remotely, such as obtaining an identification
badge or fingerprinting services. Phase 1 also included the implementation of safety measures,

    •    asking individuals screening questions upon entering the building;
    •    requiring face coverings when entering the building and in common areas;
    •    installing physical distancing signage and floor markers;
    •    providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes throughout the common areas of the
    •    additional cleaning of high-touch areas; and
    •    installing protective barriers in customer service areas and point-of-service stations.

  CDC Activities and Initiatives Supporting the COVID-19 Response and the President’s Plan for Opening America
Up Again, May 2020
 NSF is not required to follow §16VAC25-220, Virginia’s Emergency Temporary Standard Infectious Disease
Prevention: SARS-CoV-2 Virus that Causes COVID-19. However, because the NSF headquarters building is in
Virginia, NSF consulted the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Guidelines for All Business Sectors to help shape
decisions on the reopening process.

Phase 2 began July 20, 2020. NSF remains in this phase as of the date of this memorandum.
During Phase 2, employees may work in the building on a voluntary basis. In addition to the
safety measures implemented during Phase 1, the maximum daily building occupancy is initially
limited to 25 percent of capacity. Employees interested in working inside the building must
coordinate within their directorates to ensure occupancy limits are not exceeded.

Phase 3 will allow unrestricted access to the NSF headquarters building with appropriate safety
protocols. As of the date of this memorandum, there is no projected timeline for the start of
Phase 3. NSF is considering Federal, state, and local guidance; infection rates and trends; and
NSF-specific needs and requirements to decide when to begin Phase 3.

Results of Employee Survey on NSF’s Pandemic Response

To better understand the workforce’s perception of NSF’s response to the pandemic, NSF
conducted three surveys between May and July 2020. NSF reported the results of these surveys
in emails to all staff. According to NSF, the May survey, which had a 38 percent response rate,
indicated that 88 percent of all respondents felt strongly supported by NSF; 86 percent of all
respondents felt that the communication about COVID-19 had been helpful; and 82 percent of all
respondents felt they had the resources they needed to support their health, safety, and well-
being. Areas of concern identified included the eventual re-opening of the building. In the June
survey, which had a 42 percent response rate, 73 percent of respondents reported feeling
comfortable with the re-opening approach described by NSF at the beginning of June. Those
who responded negatively to that item (six percent) reported feeling that the approach was too
vague and ambiguous, citing concerns over health and safety and opening the building too
quickly. After the survey, NSF held a virtual Town Hall meeting to address many of the concerns
survey participants raised. According to NSF, the July survey had a 51 percent response rate, and
89 percent of participants responded positively to the item “I feel NSF is handling this situation
as well as can be expected.”


We found NSF’s plans to be reasonable, prudent, and consistent with OMB and CDC COVID-19
related guidance on reopening businesses. NSF has continued to ensure critical and essential
services meet mission needs, protect the health and safety of its workforce, and provide Federal
Government leadership regarding the return of employees to its headquarters building.
Additionally, employee feedback obtained from the three surveys NSF conducted in May, June,
and July indicated that staff were supportive of NSF’s approach.

        Christina Sarris              John Veysey                 Ken Lish
        Karen Santoro                 Nathan Wells                Ruth Gonzalez
        Fleming Crim                  Allison Lerner              Karen Scott
        Lawrence Rudolph              Lisa Vonder Haar            Anneila Sargent
        Peg Hoyle                     Dan Buchtel                 Ellen Ochoa
        Ann Bushmiller                Louise Nelson               Judy Chu
        Brian Stone                   Joan Ahl                    Jeff Rich