Will Local Government Move Permanently to Remote Work?

Recently, Twitter made headlines by making its COVID-19 remote work accommodations permanent. All company employees can continue working from home as long as they see fit, even after stay at home orders are lifted.

Other private sector companies have followed suit, but what about the public sector and local governments? COVID-19 precautions pushed many cities and counties into widespread remote work as well.

In fact, 61% of local governments allowed staff to work from home when possible during the pandemic, according to survey research from American City and County.

Now, some cities, counties, and municipalities are facing big questions about the future. Are local governments considering remote telework policies for the long term?

Has COVID-19 proved that government remote work is possible?

Despite long-term resistance to remote work, many local governments are actually finding success with employees working from home. While individual mileage may vary – enjoy the juxtaposition between these pro-WFH and anti-WFH articles, both in the New York Times, as an example – clear benefits emerged in these unexpected circumstances.

Working from home is not an entirely new concept for cities. Even prior to COVID-19, nearly 1 in 5 local jurisdictions allowed regular telework for eligible positions as part of their flexible work practices. This includes Los Angeles County, whose original policy came into play in 1989 and today has over 5,000 participating employees.

But for most governments, remote work was a brand new experience. And results have been surprisingly positive.

Amy Fecher, head of the administration department for the state of Arkansas, shared with Governing Magazine that “there have been some bumps along the way, but overall, I think it’s gone much smoother than I would have anticipated its going. It really has opened up every state’s eyes to what can be done in a remote work environment.”

Even in extreme circumstances, governments are still working. Staff are getting their jobs done, and doing them well. In a time when citizens look to local governments for information and assistance at unprecedented rates, municipalities stepped up to meet the need despite the physical closure of city hall.

Government workers foresee permanent shifts too. Over half (52%) of federal employees in this survey agreed that the pandemic will change how their agency views the value of telework.

So should local governments create or update remote or telework policies beyond COVID-19? Some are already saying yes, and are making the move to permanent work from home capabilities.

7 examples of governments planning to increase work from home

City, county, and state leaders are committing to long-term remote work for their agency. Some of the earliest post-coronavirus remote work adopters have already taken specific action:

  • Meridian, Idaho: This city of 75k has already approved a new policy that will allow eligible employees to work remotely 50% of the week. As for why they’re starting with 50%, Mayor Robert Simison explains, “I don’t think we’re ready to go full-on remote work. There’s still that element of interacting with your fellow co-workers.”
  • Manitowoc, Wisconsin: As of May 12, 2020, the city of Manitowoc has started the process of creating a permanent employee telework policy. Once approved by the Common Council, it will remain in effect even after the pandemic.

Other agencies have stated plans or targets for work from home policies:

  • Travis County, Texas: The county host of the Texas state capital hopes to keep 75% of its staff teleworking permanently. This would include approximately 3,000 employees. “We’ve been conducting this unintentional experiment for the last two months, and we’re seeing how effective it is,” says Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea.
  • Waukesha County, Wisconsin: Dale Shaver, Director of Parks and Land Use for Waukesha County, predicts that 20% of his workforce will telecommute permanently. “Our people are finding that they’re a lot more productive at home,” says Shaver.

While concrete details have not yet emerged, many local governments understand the feasibility and upside of telework. At this time, most statements from government leadership on future remote work, while positive, do not involve specific policy decisions:

  • Denver, Colorado: Mayor Michael Hancock sees a long-term future for remote work in his city. “…We have learned something really good [during the stay-at-home order], and that is that we can have our employees continue to be productive and deliver the services to the people while allowing some of our employees to work remotely. We’re going to extend that opportunity, and going forward and we’re going to master it and create a new opportunity for the city of Denver.”
  • Brattleboro, Vermont: Thoughts of extending telecommuting aren’t exclusive to big cities. Brattleboro (population 12k) town manager Peter Elwell says, “We will likely offer the option of telecommuting to virtually all office employees, with the frequency and scope being tailored to each particular situation.”
  • The State of Maryland: IT Secretary Michael Leahey told StateScoop that remote work could reduce real estate costs to help with impending budgetary issues. “I’m giving serious thought to turning my agency practically… into a virtual agency. The state has, like everyone else, significant revenue shortfalls this coming year.”

How to prepare your organization for the future of remote government

From increased staff productivity to potential cost savings amidst upcoming budget shortfalls, remote work proved its value to local governments during the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic.

GT20-HEADERS-Webinar-Rock-Solid-6-4_1200x630-768x403First and foremost, local governments need to be able to support remote work with the right infrastructure. This goes beyond laptops and remote meetings. All internal operations and citizen services need to be accessible from anywhere.

It’s more important than ever for local governments to use technology that’s scalable and flexible in the face of disruption. That’s why we’re excited to join Government Technology Magazine for the Lessons in Flexibility: What COVID-19 Teaches Us About Working Through Disruption webinar on June 4th, 2020. Join in for expert tips from CTO Stephen Tyler and Center for Digital Government Senior Fellow Patrick Moore on how technology can support excellent and efficient citizen service despite shifting demands.

Beyond that, your agency will need a telework policy. Here are resources to build your long-term remote work policy:

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