The COVID reset: How the government work environment will be changing
As the number of monthly reported COVID cases and deaths continue to decline and the data shows that the vaccines in use in America are safe and effective in preventing the spread of COVID, social distancing guidelines and COVID-based restrictions on business operations are being lifted across the country. Yet, after more than a year of virtual meetings, telework and mass adoption of online service delivery, employers are faced with the challenge of establishing a work environment to attract and retain employees that meets the needs of the public under dramatically different circumstances than before the pandemic struck.
Prior to COVID, few government positions offered remote work opportunities. Managers feared a lack of productivity, and the idea of government employees working from home created concerns about public perception. However, the data is clear that for those functions that were able to be delivered remotely, employees are often more productive working remotely. And with so many Americans now working virtually, the fear of backlash from the public is no longer a legitimate concern in most communities. Additionally, while reducing the number of people in a physical space was necessary to meet CDC guidance at the height of the pandemic, the realization that government can potentially save money on office space presents a new opportunity for government efficiency.
Certainly, all signs show that remote work is here to stay. So clear and equitable policies must be developed to stipulate which positions are eligible for remote work, how productivity will be measured, and how to best meet the needs of the organization, the public and employees. In this way, remote work cannot simply be viewed as a “perk.” Instead, the business case must be made for those job functions and positions where the physical location of the employee has no bearing on the ability to meet the goals and objectives of the organization.
Yet not all programs and services can be delivered remotely, and some employees prefer working in an office environment. So, we are confronted with the challenge of how best to structure the work environment in a way that blends in-person and virtual work environments. Managers need to reconsider the functions of the physical workspace. Conference rooms need to be outfitted with equipment to allow virtual participants. Instead of individually assigned offices or cubical spaces, more temporary docking stations may be needed to better accommodate employees who only come in on occasion or in shifts. Another factor is how best to form sick-leave policies and socially distanced workstations to maintain the physical and psychological wellbeing of employees. So, while less physical space may be required, investments may still need to be made to the structure of the existing space.
Another aspect that government organizations must address is how to deliver programs and services virtually. Prior to the pandemic, much of the public may have had trepidations about technology or skepticism about the ability to engage virtually. Today, however, from retail shopping to dining, doctor visits to insurance claims, people have become comfortable with online interactions. This is not only a matter of convenience for the customer, but it also provides them the precious commodity of time. Indeed, online interactions have become the norm. As it relates to government services, they expect to receive programs and services anytime, anywhere on their own terms. So, the extent to which residents no longer have to come to a physical building to pay taxes, receive a permit, schedule an inspection or any other government service, the greater the level of satisfaction with government.
This requires government to invest in online service delivery capacities. They need to receive payment in any form residents wish to pay. Cash, credit card transactions and e-checks are essential. Yet, even online services like Venmo and PayPal are welcomed payment options. Some governments are even beginning to accept cryptocurrency (most notably Bitcoin). Governments will need to invest in hardware, software, and digital platforms while bolstering their web and mobile application tools to deliver programs and services in both digital and in-person interactions. Ultimately, people have come to expect convenience and immediacy of service delivery, and governments will have to deliver on those needs.
Lastly, the notion that COVID is no longer a health concern for employers to worry about is far from reality. We witnessed this reality when in Manatee County, Fla., two members of the IT department died and three others were hospitalized due to COVID in June 2021. Later a sixth staff member on the floor tested positive and the county had to shut down its administration building. Certainly, COVID remains a threat not only to the public health, but to the continuity of operations within government. The fact that all six individuals affected were not vaccinated and others working in proximity who were vaccinated did not contract the virus raises more concerns about policies for returning to the office. Should vaccines be required? Should masking and social distancing be required for in-person work? Would these policies have made any difference in this case? There is no easy answer, and the politicization of the COVID pandemic makes it particularly difficult for government organizations to develop and implement policies based solely on the data. However, these issues must be considered when developing return to work policies for the future.
Government offices and service delivery has changed out of necessity. Residents expect more programs and services to be delivered in an online space. Remote work presents opportunities for cost savings, increased productivity, and work-life balance for employees. It also creates challenges in establishing organizational culture, teamwork and camaraderie. If we accept the proverb that “necessity is the mother of invention,” then we are likely to witness the birth of a new model of government in the near future.
Jason Grant is the director of advocacy for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). ICMA is the leading association for local government professionals, providing member support; publications; data and information; peer and results-oriented assistance; and training and professional development to over 12,000 city, town, and county managers, their staffs, and other individuals and organizations throughout the world.