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With lessons from the rapid shift to telework, officials are rejiggering plans for hybrid environments and keeping nimble, problem-solving mentalities.
Better support of work/life balance and simplifying customers’ search for government information are two major lessons that state and local agencies learned from the pandemic, experts said.
“It’s amazing what having to do fast can do in learning,” Michael Rossman, chief human resources officer for Hennepin County, Minnesota, said May 10 during the “Preparing State and Local Government for the Future of Work” panel of Adobe’s Experience Makers Government Forum. “It’s amazing what organizations can do if you decide where to focus, and we had to focus on the safety of our employees…. If our employees aren’t safe and we’re interacting with our residents, we can’t keep our residents safe.”
Today, the county has adopted as permanent many of the interim policies it put in place in response to the pandemic. For instance, it is committed to offering a hybrid work environment to the point of shuttering floors or entire office buildings. Part of that is a continuation of an effort underway before 2020 to get more employees out among residents, rather than holed up in office buildings, said Glen Gilbertson, chief information officer for the county. In fact, that work, including having laptops and a virtual private network in place, better prepared the county to shift 67,500 employees to remote work within a 72-hour period.
“It made us look good because it was just there,” Gilbertson said.
Still, it wasn’t exactly seamless. “One of the issues we had to overcome was how to deliver equipment remotely, and how to image the machines remotely,” he added. “Before the pandemic, if you needed equipment, you would go to a certain building and pick up your equipment as part of the onboarding process. That was no longer going to be successful.”
Today, he and Rossman rely heavily on employee surveys to determine what technologies or capabilities workers need to remain productive and remote. Additionally, the CIO office set up systems to enable hybrid meetings. For instance, the videoconferencing tool of choice is Microsoft Teams, but five other video chat tools are available should employees—or the residents they serve—prefer other methods.
The county is also adapting its policies on caregiving as the health crisis eases. About 150 to 200 employees were allowed to work outside the state—something it never would have done in other situations but needed to, to allow employees to care for loved ones.
“We have become a much more kind organization in some ways,” Rossman said, and it shows in a decrease in complaints from employees and managers.
The trick now is separating the work environment from the pandemic to normalize the changes, he added. “We’ve learned an immense amount of ways to work that are just fantastic and really serve our residents well,” Rossman said. “We need to uncouple that from the pandemic and just say, ‘We’ve learned a lot. Look at the amazing work everyone has done.’”
At the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), Executive Director Melinda Stewart said a major change she’s seen among her workforce is a shift in mindset. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly planned out,” Stewart said. “We can work collaboratively to find a solution to an issue and move on it, where before it would take weeks and weeks of planning.”
Quick wins have helped drive that. For example, VITA had a data program mapped out, but when it had to change its focus because of COVID, Stewart and her team decided that rather than use a Microsoft Power BI platform that would take months to install, they would take advantage of software-as-a-service licenses and data they had to develop dashboards that could help project managers and customers. They also did three-week challenges in which teams had to come up with dashboards using data from, say, seven systems.
“That was a way for the organization to shift from project work to quick wins, and then using the tools, they got confidence … that we could implement things quickly,” Stewart said.
On the customer side, VITA revamped Virginia.gov, the central portal for state agency information, to make it easier for people to find the information they need.
“The key focus is for my group, in particular, is common platforms for all agencies, eliminating that digital divide,” Stewart said. “Every agency needs to have a website. How do we do that? How do we share the technologies across agencies to have a common platform without spending millions of dollars [and] multiple years?”
Whether agencies, like VITA, are encouraging employees to return to work or adopting hybrid, like Hennepin County, the past two years have made lasting impressions on agencies’ approach to work.
“We knew … coming out of the pandemic that the world of work was going to change—the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution. That’s what I think,” Rossman said.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.