After COVID-19: Is There a Place for Telework in Local Government?

Key items to consider in determining if your community can or should have telework options for personnel.

By Patricia Vinchesi, ICMA Northeast Regional Director | May 14, 2020 | ARTICLE

As we slowly move away from stay-at-home orders and return to work in our “official” office environment, most municipal employees who have been working remotely since mid-March will leave the experience behind and it will be a once-in-a-career event. But for others, it may signal the beginning of a new way forward in the delivery of local government services.

While the private sector has been engaged in workforce telecommuting for decades, the public sector, particularly at the local level, has not had nearly the same level of penetration. And while there are valid and varied reasons for this, has the COVID-19 pandemic and the reassignment of major operational tasks outside Town Hall raised the potential for rethinking the traditional paradigm of local government service delivery? Are there some municipal positions that lend themselves to remote work (work from home, telecommuting, flexible work arrangements) on a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent basis?

Scotty Colby, assistant town manager in Windsor, Connecticut, believes the pandemic has shifted perspectives.

“I think that during this unique time, it has allowed us to see things in a different way in how we operate and do business.”

This sentiment is echoed by Westwood, Massachusetts, town manager Leon Gaumond, “I think this (COVID-19) may cause most municipalities to explore ways of making all positions more remote during emergency situations. I think we will all spend some time when all is said and done looking at how each position thrived or suffered during this time and what we could put into motion to help the next time we have a pandemic/blizzard/earthquakes/zombie apocalypse.”

A report released April 30 by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) found that there was a steady increase in telework among state and local government employees (27 percent), the highest share since 2016. According to the SLGE report, “COVID 19 is altering the landscape and triggering greater experimentation.” 

By the very nature of their duties and responsibilities, the majority of municipal jobs require work in the field: public safety, utilities, parks and recreation, public works. But there is also another vast array of local government service, including support staff in the aforementioned front-line departments, that have the potential to perform tasks from locations other than a municipal facility.

“I think we’ve learned a lot about the potential and the limitations of telecommuting,” says Peter Elwell, town manager, Brattleboro, Vermont. “We will definitely allow more of this in the future. We are developing a “work from home policy” that will include a simple agreement all telecommuting employees will have to sign to protect the town and the employee and to make work-from-home expectations clear. We will likely offer the option of telecommuting to virtually all office employees, with the frequency and scope being tailored to each particular situation.”  

Not surprisingly, a major stumbling block in any effort to assign remote work is technology. After states issued stay-at-home orders, many communities were unable to have staff engaged in work because of the lack of internet availability and connectivity issues. For success in any teleworking initiative, a robust IT infrastructure is the foremost priority.

What are the key items to consider in determining if your community can or should have telework options for personnel?

1. Develop and adopt a teleworking policy/agreement for employees.

Any new program or initiative begins with a policy. Teleworking policies outline expectations, protocols, and procedures. They should be flexible to allow for adjustment especially if it is new to the community. Most communities require a telecommuting “agreement” that is signed by the employee and can be revoked at any time for things like failing to meet safety requirements or less-than-satisfactory work products.

The policy should be clear that working from home is not materially different than working in the office. Organizational rules, policies, and procedures must be complied with and compensation and benefits will not change.

It is also important to be on the record about any potential liabilities stemming from working from home, including making sure the employee’s home is a safe place from which to work and may even require an inspection and review of the homeowner’s policy. Accidents can happen at home the same as the office and employees will still have the same workers’ compensation coverage. OSHA and ADA requirements also apply. Furnishings and equipment should be ergonomically designed, and lighting and ventilation sufficient.

Some employer policies require dependent care during work hours and to provide documentation of same. Others preclude any business-related meetings at the employee’s home. Here are two telecommuting policies from a small and large jurisdiction:

2. Determine which positions might be appropriate for telework.

A survey of local government managers for this article identified two major types of positions that may lend themselves to future telework. The first was in the financial realm: payroll, bills payable, and billing; and the second was in the planning, economic development, and inspectional services area.

Finance: Most communities had to regroup on the fly for payroll and bills payable when building closures went into effect. If they don’t already exist, standard operating procedures will need to be developed for remote transmissions, as well as policies around electronic signatures.

Planning and Inspections: Plan and regulatory review is regularly performed via laptops or other electronic means, so location is often not critical. It is also likely that many communities may be incorporating some form of digital meetings as a permanent part of plan reviews, so planning for this now is a wise investment. According to Nancy Colbert Puff, deputy city manager, Concord, New Hampshire, “The planning staff have all functioned seamlessly: plan review, land use board meetings, applicant assistance (phone), and weekly coordination meetings. The city notably adopted wide use of permitting in the cloud (view permit) which has greatly enabled this experience. Inspections staff likewise can review, comment on, and issue permits using the cloud-based system; they have also adopted video inspections for occupied buildings and expect to retain video inspections for efficiency after the stay-at-home order is lifted.” Similarly, the city of Tallahassee, Florida, (Raoul Lavin, assistant city manager, via ICMA Connect) has developed a comprehensive inspectional policy to keep that city’s building projects moving.

Information Technology: Most communities have an IT infrastructure platform that allows it to operate off-site. This is generally part of the community’s emergency management plan. If your community does not have this capability, it is something to consider. Staff can easily be assisted via telephone or desktop.

Other departments: Potential staff positions identified as good options for teleworking also included:

  • Central Reception/General Help Desk (provided the person was set up with an office landline phone and telephone number.
  • Permitting – fire permits, new vehicle registration (opposed to renewals), and other electronic filings not requiring manual paperwork.
  • Assessing.
  • Procurement Specialists.
  • Youth and Family Services Division.
  • Housing Services.
  • Social Services.

3. Determine hours of work and duration.

Factors to consider involve whether or not the work is ongoing and of a routine nature, if the responsibilities were an essential function of the position and would leave a void if the employee were unavailable to perform the work. Also, is the nature of the work performed off-site regular or temporary, i.e., undertaken only during certain times of the year such as an emergency or snow day?

While some positions identified may be appropriate for full-time remote work, almost all managers surveyed agreed that some time in the office during the week would be required. This would likely take the form of a staggered work week with 1-2 days in the office and could potentially be shared among other office staff.

4. Ensure that the proper technological equipment, connections, and security safeguards are in place.

The same equipment and security protocols employed for the office must extend to users of municipally owned property being used off-site, including IT access into remote worker sites and activities, guarding against phishing, two-factor authentication, VPNs, password management (see Checklist for Cybersecure Remote Work).

Brian Valentino, executive director, Western Monmouth, Utilities, New Jersey, says, “I think it is very likely that we will expand the use of telework especially in our utility billing areas.  We made the decision a few years ago to only buy laptops. The idea was for evacuation purposes, we could just grab the laptops, run, and be back in operation someplace else in minutes.  Little did we know how well prepared this would make us for this situation! Through dumb luck, we also transitioned to cloud-based financial, billing, and payroll systems over the last few years as well. We are a special-purpose government, so we don’t have to juggle a broad range of services.”

5. Assess the capability of staff to perform or supervise remote work.

Now that you have your policy, determine what position(s) may be ideal for telework and know that you have the proper equipment. A critical piece is ensuring that the staff person who will be engaged in the work has the proper training and skills required to do the work. How are their time management skills? Will they be able to troubleshoot minor issues? Can they set priorities and work independently? Just as many individuals adapted more adroitly to remote work in recent months than others, so, too, will certain members of your staff be more ideally suited to teleworking rather than working in an office setting. Additionally, some employees may want to work remotely but their residence does not meet the criteria that are required. Nancy Colbert Puff of Concord, New Hampshire, notes,

“Most employees do not have home environments set up as well as work ones for extended periods of office work – ergonomics, broadband service, and even work schedules/separation of work/home.”

Along these same lines, you may have an employee, or a group of employees ideally suited for remote work, but managers must be trained to supervise and manage these individuals, requiring additional consideration.

6. Out of sight, out of mind.

Employees who work off site can often be left out of the communication loop because they are not part of the day-to-day flow of operations. There are no chance conversations in the hallway and informal chatter about the news of the day. The likelihood of employees contacting each other by email or telephone is also reduced. As a result, working remotely can feel isolating. Inclusion, not only with supervisors but with other members of the team, becomes critical. Keeping abreast of workplace issues, participating in staff meetings via videoconferencing, or joining informal celebrations virtually can all contribute to a sense of belonging. Supervisors should visit the work location every six months not only to ensure safety protocols and work equipment are in order, but to have a frame of reference for the environment the employee is working from. Unless you check in with your employees regularly, you will not know if they are experiencing difficulties or having challenges. So, stay in direct contact. A stressed-out employee is not a productive one.

7. Discuss how work assignments, productivity, and outputs will be measured.

This may seem like a challenge for managers but the same requirements, workplans, and evaluative tools you have with your non-remote staff apply to those working remotely.  Remote staff should have a predetermined daily or weekly work schedule that includes regular breaks. Regular communication between the employee and supervisor is important and critical to the success of any telework arrangement. This builds trust and enables open discussion about challenges or impediments to what is and what isn’t working in the teleworking arrangement. Permanent teleworking positions are those positions where tasks are mostly performed independently, and the deliverables are more product-driven.

8. Audition a pilot program for a predetermined period of time.

If you are uncertain that telework is the right move for your community or a position may or may not be an ideal fit, the best assessment option is a pilot program with a defined scope and duration. In this way, the advantages and drawbacks of remote work can be learned with little risk, and the potential for its benefits to the organization and community can be better determined.

9. Obtain buy-in from elected officials, staff, and the public.

Just as every municipality is different, so, too, will be the opportunities for employees to work remotely. While you may be convinced that telework options for staff is a win-win, your board or council may not be as sure. There is also likely to be pushback from constituents and even other employees who may raise issues about equity and fairness. Charlie Seelig, town administrator, Halifax, Massachusetts, says, “We need ‘front of the houses’ here at Town Hall. Residents and others have an expectation that offices will be open, and people will be here (once the Town Hall opens again). Depending on the office, staff might be able to rotate in and out if the expectations change that all employees will be here all the time; someone calling or emailing may not care about the physical location of the person answering that communication, but not having people here (‘Sorry, that person is working from home today, call or email them’) hikes the dissatisfaction of residents.” Tensions might also occur between employees who have to work in the office and those who can work from home. Managers must guard against disparate treatment and be wary of appearing like they have created another level of employees, those in the office and those who work from home.

There will always be those who are of the opinion that individuals who work from home are not really “working” and it will require education and transparency about the policy and process to convey how the program will work. According to Meredith Robson, village manager of Ardsley, New York,

“There would definitely have to be public buy-in because the person they might want to see could be out if they just drop in and don’t make an appointment.  I think it could come down to public perception more so than the ability to assign work that someone could legitimately do at home.”

10. It will help with your recruiting efforts.

It’s no secret that filling some local government positions these days is a challenge. Allowing employees to work from home is a perk and can make your community a more desirable place to work. It can also cut down on office expenses. It also gives an individual the freedom to work from the comfort of their home in an environment conducive to less interruptions in conditions fostering more productivity. Today's workforce considers work/life balance a priority when determining whether or not to accept a position.

11. It may not be an option.

Local government is “high touch.” Survey respondents noted that telework was probably more of an option for large communities because staffs in smaller localities are more limited in size and deal more directly with the public. Residents could no longer drop in and see a specific staff person and would now need to make an appointment. But that did not preclude small communities from considering allowing remote work on a staggered work week for one or two days as many employees have the past few months.

Telework is largely driven by technology. Not every locality has the means or connectivity for staff to work from home. There are still many regions of the country, particularly rural areas, where there is no broadband, and that precludes services that are dependent on internet access.

While many communities might now consider telework on a short-term or even longer-term basis, others have determined that even after this extended period of remote work, having staff physically present is preferred.

Regardless of whether your community implements telework now or in the future, what is important is that despite the daily challenges of this pandemic, many managers have taken the time to consider a new way of service delivery that may enhance and improve serviced delivery in an innovate and creative manner.

As Bill Fraser, city manager of Montpelier, Vermont, aptly notes, “We have learned just how much we are capable of doing using remote technology and reduced staffing. We’ve also implemented some new practices that we will likely keep in the future. For example, our leadership team has a brief morning Zoom meeting three days a week. We’ve found this to be very effective. Our water and wastewater plants have used revised schedules in order to keep people separated but they have proven to be operationally beneficial. We will definitely be more open to remote work in the future on either temporary or permanent basis depending on the position.”

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

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