How Agencies in One State Struggled With the Transition to Telework

Managers said they had not received proper guidance on how to manage their teams remotely while balancing employees' needs during the pandemic.

Managers said they had not received proper guidance on how to manage their teams remotely while balancing employees' needs during the pandemic. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Less than one-fifth of state employees in Louisiana had ever worked remotely before the pandemic, and with no consistent work-from-home policy or guidelines in place, agencies had a hard time helping them do it, according to an audit.

Most of Louisiana’s state government agencies did not have remote-work policies before the coronavirus pandemic and many struggled to shift to full-time virtual work once it became mandatory, according to an audit released this week.

The report, compiled by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office, combined results from two surveys—one of government leaders across 32 state agencies and offices, and another of staff and supervisors from those same agencies—along with best practices from federal agencies and leaders in other states. 

Telework became mandatory in Louisiana in mid-March when Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a public health emergency. Some employees returned to their offices in May, but many agencies “have continued to use telework as necessary to maintain physical distancing measures and to accommodate employees with health risks or other needs,” according to the audit.

The transition wasn’t smooth. According to the audit, thousands of state workers—83.6% of agency leaders and 47.2% of employees—were hampered by “barriers related to technology,” including outdated equipment, connectivity issues and longstanding business practices that relied too heavily on paper. 

Those difficulties were exacerbated by a lack of consistent work-from-home practices prior to the pandemic, auditors noted—56.3% of the state’s agencies and offices had no telework policies in place at all, and only 16.3% of employees had ever done their jobs from home.

That, “together with the lack of policies, made the transition to telework more difficult,” the report said. “Best practices show that the key to successfully using telework in an emergency is to have an effective, routine telework program.”

When forced to implement work-from-home policies, agencies did so inconsistently, particularly for non-essential employees who couldn’t do their jobs remotely. Some offices assigned those employees other work they could do from home, while others required workers to use leave.

The state also failed to provide managers “with sufficient guidance on how to manage their remote teams or how to monitor employee productivity,” the report said. More than 26% of agency supervisors had problems leading their teams remotely, including many who said they struggled to maintain productivity “while also balancing the needs of their staff during the pandemic.”

To address the shortcomings, the auditor’s office recommended that the state’s civil service department develop “minimum standards” for telework policies, help agencies identify how to handle non-essential employees who can’t work from home, and work with the technology office to outline the “different technologies needed for successful telework.” The departments agreed with each recommendation.

“We look forward to addressing the recommendations in the report and ensuring teleworking options are equitably and fairly provided to our workforce,” Byron P. Decoteau Jr., director of the Louisiana State Civil Service, said in a letter to the auditor’s office.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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