Returning to (tele)work: Is the public sector ready for a more permanent work-from-home policy?
Employers across the public and private sector are assessing the return-to-work situation while still in the throes of the pandemic. Should things return to normal? If so, when? What should the transition look like? Can we adopt some of the flexibly we learned during quarantine in the long term?
There’s no manual to consult and guidelines don’t always provide insight into every unique scenario, so, why not ask the employees?
The State of Maine did recently and “found 82 percent were satisfied with their current remote work situations.” Further, the survey found that among “workers who remain in the office, however, 93 percent said they were satisfied, and a similar percentage said they were able to get their jobs done with fewer co-workers.”
Working from home has a stigma. It’s more of a perception problem, really. However, the perception that an employee who’s not seated at their chair in the office is less productive has never been supported by data. That’s not to say it isn’t happening with some employees, but there are typically other signs to indicate that an employee’s lack of productivity is due to more than just the fact they are working from home.
As governments evaluate re-opening their buildings, the possibility of expanding and normalizing telework just got real.
“This experience has showed us that we can get work done at home and that we can meet people’s needs, the public’s needs, by doing so,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR).
Public servants whose primary responsibilities have proven to be accomplishable in a remote setting are now asking, Why should I rush to go back? It’s a valid question.
Even prior to the pandemic, remote work was beginning to provide a positive alternative to the typical five days spent in the office. Neil Reichenberg, former executive director at IPMA-HR, provides several compelling examples in this excerpt from Being Present, a book published in 2019 by The Workforce Institute. For instance, Reichenberg describes how flexible working arrangements can show a commitment by an employer to the wellness of their employees, just as telecommuting can have a positive impact on the environment by reducing the number of people who are commuting to work. In fact, when Travis County, Texas, announced plans to allow permanent remote work for 75 percent of its workforce, Commissioner Brigid Shea cited “air pollution (which is the second highest cause of greenhouse gas emissions county-wide) as a primary consideration.
Expanding telework to become a more permanent part of the work environment has many short- and long-term benefits. To determine if this is a viable option for their organization, leaders and managers would do well to consider how they might answer these three critical questions:
- Can a job be performed at the same service level, whether remote or in the office? There is a big difference between working at home temporarily and working at home on a more permanent basis. Managers need to determine if the role, not the employee, can achieve the same results regardless of the setting. Determining the employee’s ability to work remotely is a separate issue and should be done on an individual basis.
- Are telework policies in place—and are they easy for employees to follow? Without rules we are setting managers and employees up for failure. Parameters need to be set so employees are clear on what is expected of them. In addition to equipment, technology, and security, providing policies around regular check-ins, email or voicemail response time, and proper attire for video conferences, just to name a few, can all be part of the expectations.
- How is workforce productivity measured? This is a big one. Perception has no place here. What was expected from an employee in the office should still be expected from them while they are working from home. If extra measures are needed, now is the time to implement those changes. More frequent 1:1 check-ins between a manager and their employees might be all that is needed to ensure work is still being done at the same capacity.
We have already learned (perhaps not by choice) that governments can indeed sustain with remote workers. But to determine whether or not it’s necessary to bring the workforce back to the physical workplace full-time – or whether a hybrid approach is most appropriate – it is incumbent on leaders to continue listening to employees and evaluating options for optimal workforce arrangements.
Jennifer Dowd is senior manager of the public sector practice group at Kronos Incorporated, a provider of workforce management and HCM cloud software solutions.