27 September 2023

On the home front: Could governments learn to prefer remote work?

Start the conversation

Alan Greenblatt* says despite some hurdles, government through remote work is performing better than expected.

Developers looking to do big projects in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, have to get approval from a lot of different disciplines — soil analysis, stormwater, road design and all the rest.

Typically, that involves setting up a big meeting so all the review entities can make recommendations without conflicting with each other.

Just setting up the meetings can be a time-consuming process, but lately it’s become easier.

Developers are sending in digital files including all their plans, which are then displayed and reviewed during video conferences.

This was designed initially as a workaround during the coronavirus, but now this more efficient way of holding meetings will become standard.

“We will not go back,” says Dale Shaver, Director of Parks and Land Use for Waukesha County.

“This has changed the way we work forever.”

It’s one example of how the sudden shift to remote work has changed the way governments operate.

The pandemic caused governments to shut their doors quickly, sending workers home and managers scrambling to figure out who would need what tools and what sort of supervision.

There have certainly been some problems, but most administrators say it’s gone better than initially expected.

“There have been some bumps along the way, but overall, I think it’s gone much smoother than I would have anticipated its going,” says Amy Fecher, who heads the Administration Department for the State of Arkansas.

“It really has opened up every State’s eyes to what can be done in a remote work environment.”

For managers, there are extra challenges in measuring productivity when you can’t see your workers.

Some workers love remote work, while others miss the sociability of the office, as well as the ease of getting questions answered by dropping by someone’s desk.

For many functions that involve direct interaction with the public, it’s still easier to take care of business in person than via computer.

Despite all that, governments that had long resisted remote work have found that it can work well.

It might represent a permanent change in how they do business — or at least certain types of business.

Depending on adoption levels, it might also allow them to save a good amount of money on leased space.

The wholly unexpected circumstances of the pandemic have given the State of Kansas the opportunity to “dust off our telework policy long term”, says DeAngela Burns-Wallace, Secretary of the State’s Department of Administration.

“For those employees who are delivering services effectively remotely, then we want to keep them there.”

Good for employers, who still resist

“I’ve heard from many managers that their staff is reporting to them that they are more productive at home without the distractions, that they can focus,” Fecher says.

This points to an irony at the heart of remote work.

It’s employers who benefit, seeing improved performance among workers who don’t have to spend time commuting and aren’t faced with as many interruptions through the course of their day.

Fecher in Arkansas had to figure out who could work from home and who couldn’t.

Even at the height of the shutdown, there were some public employees who still had to show up in person — workers in public safety, corrections, child protective services and the like.

There have always been a lot of jobs that could be done remotely, such as administrative functions including human resources and finance.

Despite the growth in technology, the number of remote workers has barely grown over the past decade.

One reason why governments have been slow to embrace remote work is that it requires them to come up with different metrics for measuring performance.

No matter what an organisation’s policy, letting people work remotely is generally left to line managers’ discretion.

Making it work is more of a management challenge than a question of technology, says Jason Grant, Advocacy Director for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

But many governments turned out to be ready to send workers home, even if they weren’t planning on it.

Some Agencies already had classified workers as essential or knew who could perform most tasks remotely.

Many Agencies had already switched from desktops to laptops or moved some functions to cloud-based applications.

It’s important for managers to keep in touch with their direct reports individually, picking up the phone occasionally and not relying solely on email.

Some supervisors are holding virtual town halls, while others are borrowing the idea of going on rounds from hospitals, checking in quickly with everyone.

Many are “cascading” — a fancy management term for setting up telephone trees to make sure goals and information are passed down through the ranks.

Some permanent shifts?

It’s possible that as they reopen, many offices will be reconfigured.

Burns-Wallace says State administrators have been sharing ideas among themselves about signage, floor markings, plexiglass and other physical changes to promote distancing and safety.

The mostly newfound openness to remote work will make it easier for governments to rethink and reshape their footprints.

In Kansas, up to 75 per cent of the State workforce has been working remotely.

That number will drop, but it gives a sense of how many people don’t necessarily need to gather physically on a daily basis.

“For the future, we want to remain flexible and agile,” Burns-Wallace says.

“Can we cut our footprint in half at any given time?”

“Remote work is a critical leverage in being able to ensure we’re keeping our employees safe and delivering services.”

In Waukesha County, the Parks and Land Use Department tracks cash flow and project volume, using databases to monitor turnaround times for permits and other applications.

It also has a customer service survey that’s monitored daily in terms of employees’ attitudes, timeliness and whether they’re informative.

Shaver predicts about 20 per cent of his workers will end up telecommuting on a permanent basis.

“Our numbers have actually ticked up a bit as a result of the pandemic,” Shaver says.

“Our people are finding that they’re a lot more productive at home.”

* Alan Greenblatt is a Senior Staff Writer at Governing. He tweets at @AlanGreenblatt.

This article first appeared at www.governing.com.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.