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Coronavirus: Two States Divert to Telework. Are Others Ready?

Work-from-home policies are about to take center stage as public agencies and private corporations around the world prepare unprecedented measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Is government ready?

It was only a matter of time. The state governments of New Jersey and North Carolina issued recommendations this week for state agencies to implement work-from-home policies in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 (the new coronavirus). Other governors across the country have been making moves to slow the virus' transmission as well.

"To protect our employees, their families and the greater community, state employees are encouraged to make use of the established state Teleworking Program Policy as much as possible to limit exposure and blunt the impact of coronavirus spread," reads a Thursday email from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Meanwhile, government groups such as the International City/County Management Association have urged local governments to prepare their workforce for "the possibility of long-term teleworking."

For some state and local governments, the evolving pandemic will be a test of telework systems they’ve been developing for such contingencies; for others, it may be a logistical hurdle that proves the need for such systems.

As of today, the World Health Organization has reported 125,048 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, of which 6,729 happened in the past 24 hours. It counted 4,620 new cases the day before that, 4,125 the day before that, 3,993 the day before that, and 3,656 the day before that. While the U.S. lags behind other affected nations in issuing test kits, major organizations across the country, from South by Southwest to college basketball tournaments, have seen the trend and chose to close up shop. According to a story in the Washington Post last week, the federal government has also asked agency heads to start reviewing telecommuting policies, and potentially issuing laptops and network access, for its 1.2 million employees.

How long the public will be asked to stay home is anyone’s guess, but the question may be especially pertinent for state and local governments, whose preparedness for telework at scale is highly variable.

Questions About Telework

In Fresno, Calif., a city of more than 500,000 people, CIO Bryon Horn said last week he was confident the necessary tools are in place. He said the city’s 311 call center already has a policy to send staff home with a city laptop with a phone in case an emergency prevents them from coming in. Beyond that, Fresno is in the middle of a $9.5 million network upgrade, it has the equipment and licenses that employees will need to log in from home, and city officials are discussing HR policies to make the system work.

“Right now, I just want to make sure we have enough VPN licenses, and we do, to ensure that if we have a problem or need somebody to work from home, or if we needed to quarantine somebody, they could still have access to their work,” he said. “The city is on alert, and we are making sure that we have plans. We’ve been discussing it, and we are concerned.”

Horn said he occasionally lets people work from home anyway, but the prospect of sending employees home en masse will require ironing out workspace safety concerns and other legalities.

“We allow (telecommuting) in some cases, but we are working on a policy now to see if we can allow more people to do it,” he said. “You have to make sure the risk doesn’t outweigh the benefits.”

Phil Bertolini, co-director of the Center for Digital Government* and former CIO of Oakland County, Mich., said the pandemic begs a long list of questions that local governments will have to start answering, and fast: Who’s eligible? Does the agency have the necessary equipment, like laptops and desktops? Are they secure? Does the agency have to certify people’s home computers? Can they handle remote meetings?

Technical specifications aside, there are other questions: Do employees have enough to do out of the office? Can supervisors still measure productivity? Are the employees timely and reliable enough to work from home? Are necessary policies in place for workplace safety? Will some be placed on temporary leave?

“The technologies are more prevalent today than they were in the past, but I think it’s more about the work rules … (Telework) is just not something that has caught on tremendously in government yet,” he said. “This is an opportunity for government to stretch its legs on telework.”

Being Prepared

Bertolini was a staunch proponent of telework during his time with Oakland County, having launched a pilot program in 2014 to allow his staff to telework two days a week, just to see how it would pan out. He said a lot of work went into it, answering the aforementioned questions and having everyone sign new contracts to abate HR concerns.

He found telework particularly suitable for programmers, business analysts and project managers, where it might not have been for employees in other agencies, such as police or field inspectors. But it paid off. Bertolini said there were productivity gains and high satisfaction among employees, but that was because they were prepared. In 2014, he said, he had been stockpiling PCs and earmarked them for use in case of a pandemic, so he could simply give someone a government PC to use if the security of their own home device was in question.

“Now we have a global crisis, and agencies are going to be forced to have their people potentially work from home,” he said. “If you close your government, do your union contracts and civil service tools say that you have to pay people, or do you send them home and make them use their leave banks? Do you almost lay them off, like the auto industry used to do, or do you work them from home? In my county, it took many months to get this stuff straightened out about how to effectively work from home. The question is, has the government thought about this, have they put the right technologies in place, have they put the right policies in place, do they have the right controls in place to (let people work) from home?”

Bertolini said the challenges of managing a remote workforce are likely to be greater when decisions about telework have to be made quickly. In this case, he said local governments might do well to adapt their existing disaster recovery plans, or business continuity of operation plans. He said impacts to certain city services will be difficult to mitigate without bodies in an office.

“A lot of governments today, you can pay your taxes online, you can ask for records online, but a lot of governments don’t have that, especially the small ones. How are they going to do business? It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “Larger governments are going to have more people involved, which means you’re going to have more disruptions, potentially. A small government like a township that doesn’t have that many people, and the government only has three employees, is going to be (less of a problem).”

A similar observation came from Yorktel CEO Ron Gaboury, whose company has a focus on video conferencing technology and network management. He said in his experience, the federal government has been ahead of the curve with telework technologies, but state and local agencies are more likely to be lagging. Gaboury said he has seen more investments in inter-agency telework as opposed to work-from-home setups, for which he gave several recommendations: do a network assessment to be sure the network can handle video conferencing and teleworking at scale, do a technology inventory to make sure the agency has the equipment, and establish policies and procedures for holding meetings and managing people’s work.

“If you’re going to have a really enterprise-grade, stable, secure environment, that takes some planning, if you don’t have it. Their IT people will determine how well they fare,” he said. “From what I hear … by the end of this week, it’s going to go from a conversation to a practical. We’re really going to be working from home.”

The company’s senior vice president of marketing, Kelly Harman, pointed out there can be workplace culture issues with telework too, for less tech-savvy employees.

“I think there’s also a cultural aspect to this, particularly people who are not used to being on video calls all the time and are reluctant, who don’t want to see themselves on camera or that sort of thing … particularly if you’re working day in and day out, virtually,” she said.

How will state and local government services be affected? With North Carolina and New Jersey leading the way, a point of consensus among Gaboury, Horn and Bertolini was that we’re about to find out.

“As we watch businesses shut down and tell their people to work from home … from a government perspective, I would bet those conversations are happening,” Bertolini said. “I’ll bet every government … is trying to figure out what their policies are going to be, how they’re going to handle sick leave, short-term disability and family leave.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.