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Post-COVID-19, Government Takes a New Look at Work

Now that the dust is settling after the rush to pivot to remote work for as many public-sector staff as possible, tech leaders look at what a hybrid workforce future may hold for state and local government.

two people work on laptops
This is a workforce issue like none we have ever put together before, with every aspect of work changing right before our eyes. Fifteen months into the pandemic, many of us are by now veterans of the virtual work environment. Prior to last March, you likely had a point of view on telecommuting for the government workforce: a wonderful idea or one that could never work. But that opinion has likely changed. If it hasn’t changed, it has probably at least evolved.

The transition to large-scale remote work for large swaths of the public and private sectors wouldn’t have been possible without technology. A colleague of mine would call that statement “a penetrating stab at the obvious.” And given our vast tech-enabled capabilities, most people have been pleasantly surprised by how productive their staff have been.

In our cover story, Hiring, Onboarding, Managing: Government Adapts to New Work, we cite a stat from Pew Research: 46 percent of workers who had never worked remotely pre-COVID say they’d like to continue to telecommute at least part of the time. That’s a lot of people with a stated preference for flexibility. Is government prepared to deliver?

Those who manage large teams know that there’s a degree of uncertainty that naturally flows from not being able to see people in the same physical space, working. Presence functions of popular messaging apps help, as do video calls and emails in which issues are hashed out and progress is proven. But differences between in-person and remote collaboration can be stark, and remote work requires a shift to a different kind of performance measurement.

Abby Snay, deputy secretary for Future of Work at the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, thinks this shift can lead to increased employee engagement. “If you tell me the results you want and leave it to me to come up with the best way of achieving those results, I am going to feel more empowered. I am going to take greater initiative. It’s going to spur my creativity, and I’m likely to become a more engaged, productive and loyal worker,” she said.

The challenges of government recruitment are well documented, but if government expects to compete with the private sector for talent, it must be prepared to evolve traditional beliefs about how work should be done and measured.

In our feature on Will Government Buildings Be Empty After the Pandemic?, we consider government’s evolving physical footprint. As any brick-and-mortar businessperson can attest, leasing or buying the physical space in which to conduct business is a significant expense. Then there are all the related costs of heating and cooling, electricity, equipment, et cetera.

As has been widely reported, a lot of big names in private industry are moving toward a virtual model, scaling back the size of their headquarters and re-engineering their work to require less face-to-face interaction. That idea has merit for government too, though the prospect is complex for organizations with a lot of resources tied to physical spaces. CIOs and facilities managers alike are reconsidering physical space needs, due to budget considerations but also to bolster government’s reputation as an employer of choice. As the world of work continues to evolve, this is a must.

Global Workplace Analytics’ President Kate Lister put a fine point on it in an interview with GT. “When most companies are offering this [flexible work options] and 95 percent of their people say they want it, if government agencies don’t offer it, they’re just going to be looking at the back of their employees’ heads as they walk out the door.”
Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.