Covid-19's Lasting Mark on Remote Work in State and Local Agencies

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Connecting state and local government leaders

It's clear that some telework practices in many workplaces will outlast the pandemic. But which ones and to what extent?

Like many state and local government employees with desk jobs, Melissa Bridges, performance and innovation coordinator for Little Rock, Arkansas, hasn't been into her office much since the Covid-19 outbreak hit last spring.

"I’ve literally been into City Hall, I think, three times," Bridges told Route Fifty this week.

Instead, like legions of other public and private sector workers, she's been logging on for nearly a year now to do her job from home. The transition wasn't too bad, Bridges said, partly because she had been involved in purchasing some of the technology Little Rock has used to enable telework. And when she went remote, she was already set up with a city laptop and VPN access to her office computer.

"It really wasn’t painful for me," she said. "I know it was for a lot of other people."

Almost a year into the pandemic, the pros and cons of remote work for state and local governments and their employees continue to come into focus, as do clues about the extent to which remote work practices will endure once the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

Jason Grant, director of advocacy for the International City/County Management Association, noted how prior to the pandemic many public sector managers were wary of allowing employees to work remotely, thinking it could disrupt workflow or create other problems. “What this year has given us is the ability in each city, county and town to look at data and say, 'Has the remote work been effective? What’s worked? What hasn’t?'"

What's generally become clear, he said, is that, in many areas of government, remote work didn't hurt productivity and many employees preferred having the option available to them. “There are some jobs that may not ever go back to working in an office," Grant said. But the calculus about whether a change like that makes sense will vary widely for different positions and agencies.

Going forward, Grant expects local leaders to weigh the costs and benefits of remote work.

For example: Is offering such a job arrangement a perk that could help with recruiting talent? Or, now that people are more comfortable with Zoom and other video platforms, do virtual meetings yield efficiencies that are worth giving up in-person face time for? Is paying for the technology required for remote work worth the cost? How about when compared to potential savings from office downsizing?

It's these sorts of questions that managers will need to think about as they plan for post-pandemic workplaces.

Another issue is that residents increasingly expect to access government services online, rather than making a trip to city hall or municipal offices for something like a construction permit or license renewal. In some cases, the shift to virtual services could lessen the need for as many workers to report to offices, or allow employees to stagger their schedules to spend some of their days in the office and some at home. But, again, this will depend on how individual communities embrace the trend.

It's also important to remember that millions of Americans don't have reliable internet access and still need in-person options to interact with their local government. Especially in rural areas, public employees, too, might lack fast connections for working at home. And remote work is not a good fit for every employee—even if their jobs allow for it. Some might prefer to spend the workday at their office desk, rather than on their couch or hunched over a kitchen table.

Lastly, there are public employees who simply can't do their work remotely, such as firefighters, bus mechanics, custodians and groundskeepers.

“It’s impossible to maintain a field if you’re home," Grant said.

“We’re always going to have an element of in-person," he added. "The question is: What is the scope?”

Bridges said parts of working from home over the past 10 to 11 months have been less than ideal.

Lost are "hallway collaborations," or popping into someone's office to work through a minor issue on a project. These days, those kinds of exchanges can require scheduling a virtual meeting, getting a co-worker on the phone, or messaging back and forth online.

“It’s a lot harder just to have those spontaneous, quick conversations, which were a lot of how I moved things forward," she said. 

There have also been challenges as work has collided with home life. Bridges' husband, also a city employee, has been working from home, too. And they have 10- and 13-year-old children attending school online. “I’ve been their IT help desk while trying to get my job done, too," she said. At times, bandwidth has run short in their household when online school and work activity is going full steam. Internet hotspots the city provided have come in handy.

“It’s definitely put a lot of stress on the family," she said, adding that she's heard the same from colleagues with school-age kids.

Still, Bridges considers it a privilege to get to work from home. And, on the upside, she believes the past year helped to dispel the notion that employees might be more prone to slacking off if they work outside the office. “I think people have realized, 'Oh my gosh, you’re actually working more when you’re at home,'" she said. “There is this sense that remote working is OK in local government now.”

Bridges also thinks remote meeting technology is here to stay for Little Rock. She recalled how before the pandemic, department heads would travel from their offices into downtown for a weekly meeting, burning up time and vehicle gas to get there. City leaders, she said, have realized there are "some efficiencies in using the tech."

Cara Woodson Welch, executive director for the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, said her organization surveyed their membership, which includes mostly local government HR officials, but also people working at the state and federal levels, and found only about a third reported that their agencies had telework programs established around the time that the virus struck.

Getting the right technology in place, ensuring data and information is secure and coming up with consistent policies to guide telework have been some of the key challenges agencies have encountered with their remote work programs. Meanwhile, IPMA-HR found that about 60% of those surveyed plan to keep some sort of remote work options beyond the end of the pandemic.

Welch said she hasn't heard people fret too much over the idea that employees will not do as much work from home. "It’s more about making sure that folks are available and that they’re perceived as being as available as they were in the office," she said.

Along similar lines, ICMA's Grant pointed out that remote work isn't just about where people are physically working. “It’s how they’re delivering the programs and services," he said. “That’s where remote work, at the end of the day, becomes important. Is this a way that we provide better programs and services to the people? Are we more effective and more efficient? That’s what the city managers are going to consider as they look to the future of it.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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