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Here, There, Anywhere?: The Evolving Government Workforce

In a brave new world of hybrid work — or not — IT leaders rethink what it means to work for the public sector and what investments are needed to keep everyone connected.

remote village on the coast of a river in Alaska
One senior tech position in Alaska is held by an employee living full time in a rural village that has no roads connecting it to any city. His chances of making it into the state capitol for a meeting are almost zero. But it’s working, and having new remote voices at the table is a value add, said state CIO Bill Smith.

While working remote from a far-flung village is an extreme example, it’s a fact that the workplace has evolved dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, sending employees across the globe to work from home to avoid spreading and contracting the virus. But what will the workplace look like now that the pandemic is shifting to the endemic stage and employees have proven they can be productive working from home — and many prefer doing so?

Government Technology spoke with tech leaders in city, county and state government to learn where they are landing in terms of developing permanent remote work policies. Many have rolled out hybrid policies that allow employees to work a portion of their work week from home if their job allows. Others are going so far as to consider “borderless hiring,” where staff needn’t even live in their employer’s state. But nearly all agreed that work life has been forever changed by the great work-from-home experiment necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m very happy that the discussion has changed overnight from ‘Can we work remotely?’ to ‘When should we work remotely?’” Alaska’s Smith said. “That was groundbreaking. … Our leaders are focusing on the right questions.”

Alaska CIO Bill Smith
Alaska CIO Bill Smith said leadership's shift from asking whether remote work is possible to when it's most advantageous was "groundbreaking."
Government Technology/David Kidd


In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took over, workplaces in the public and private sectors across the globe scrambled to develop work models to keep employees safe while continuing their missions. For most white-collar employers, that meant sending employees home with laptops, headsets and new conferencing software to allow them to toil from a home office.

In those early days, many public-sector employers needed to buy more hardware and software to allow unprecedented numbers of employees to work from home. Many moved to upgrade their computer security systems.

“We used CARES funding [the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act] and went out and replaced a lot of desktops with laptops,” said Mesa, Ariz., CIO Travis Cutright. “We made about a $1.5 million investment in laptops to be more mobile. … Our infrastructure and firewalls were upgraded. Already, we had two-factor authentication in place.”

Lea Eriksen, director of technology and innovation for Long Beach, Calif., said her city moved quickly to purchase more software and hardware once it became apparent troves of employees would be working from home.

“Pre-COVID we had Webex accounts for virtual meetings,” Eriksen said. “With COVID we rolled out Webex for every employee, so that tool just blew up. Then we started rolling out [Microsoft] Teams.”

Eriksen said Long Beach also purchased Microsoft Azure application proxy. She and other tech leaders say they moved quickly to scale up their computer systems to accommodate the shift, enhancing security in some cases and expanding cloud services.

“We went in and increased VPN capacity by about tenfold,” Smith said of Alaska’s efforts. “Prior to COVID we had the capacity to have about 10 percent of our workforce work through the VPN. We increased that within weeks.”

Smith added that Alaska also updated some of its security systems, mostly due to needed cyclical upgrades, not necessarily because of increased remote work. The changes were implemented, however, with an eye to increasing security for a larger number of remote workers.

Work collaboration tools such as Teams, Slack and others were also brought on by many governmental agencies, and those new or expanded tools required initial training for employees.


For businesses and governments throughout the world, the shift to remote work was abrupt, happening virtually overnight as the world shut down in mid-March 2020. Some employers already had remote work policies on the books, but few of those allowed for off-site work more than a few days a month, far from the massive amount of remote work most employers were forced to adopt. Now, with COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics rolled out, employers are calling their staff back into the office and are working to develop remote-work policies to accommodate many employees who prefer to work from home. In a tight labor market, the flexibility allowing for remote work has been critical in retaining and hiring workers.

Orange County, Fla., has a hybrid model, explained CIO Rafael Mena. County employees may work fully offsite depending on their job functions and with manager approval. In his department, 60 percent of employees work from home, and the remainder come into the office. Those who need to do hands-on work such as desktop servicing come into the office. Countywide, the split is 30 to 70 percent, with the majority of workers onsite.

Many tech leaders say managers are trying to balance fairness with employees’ desires to continue to work from home. Many jobs in government cannot be completed away from the work site. Positions such as police officers, meter readers, correctional officers and others must be performed onsite. Cutright says the Mesa city manager landed on a permanent policy of two remote work days per pay period for employees outside of the tech department because he was trying to be fair to those whose jobs require them to be onsite during all of their shifts. The technology department is allowed more flexibility given the nature of its mission.

Mena added that Orange County employees who work fully from home have the flexibility to come into the office for department meetings if they choose.

“I give the teams flexibility,” Mena said. “If they want to come into the office, they can do that. If they want to stay at home, they can do that.”

The city of Long Beach adopted its hybrid work policy in the fall of 2021, Eriksen said, giving department managers a wide berth in determining who could work remotely. In the Department of Technology and Innovation, managers look at the nature of the job, employee preference and city needs in determining who may work from home and how often.

“We have about two-thirds of our employees teleworking on any given day and a third onsite,” she said. “In some cases, our programmers, development team, project managers are able to work 100 percent from home. They had to fill out an application to work remotely and the supervisor reviewed it.

“In other cases, the nature of the work really is onsite. For instance, our desktop teams have to go and touch computers. In those cases, they are approved to work one day remotely. The other days they have to work onsite,” she continued.

Maine CIO Fred Brittain said the official date for IT workers to return to the office is Sept. 6 of this year. He and managers are currently reviewing each position to determine how many remote days that position could sustain. Employees will then request the number of remote days — if any — they would like to work. Maine’s remote work policy leaves the decision in the hands of managers.

“We’ve heard from some folks who’ve said, ‘I would like to come back to the office. I won’t even submit a request.’ But I don’t think we’ll see a lot of people coming back to the office full time,” said Brittain.

Orange County, FL, CIO Rafael Mena
According to CIO Rafael Mena, Orange County, Fla., is moving toward “borderless hiring.”
Government Technology/David Kidd


Remote work can often help to build a stronger work-life balance and eliminate long, stressful commutes. Worker burnout from lack of delineation between home and work can, however, be a problem. Managers say most employees prefer to work remotely at least for part of the week, although not all do. But remote work can pose challenges as managers work to build collaboration. The shift to remote work has made many work more intentionally on building teams.

Eriksen said many Long Beach employees report that they endure fewer disruptions when working from home, but some find it harder to collaborate and feel connected in a remote environment.

“When people aren’t getting together physically, some feel disconnected,” she said. “You don’t have the same opportunity for water cooler chats, for getting together in the lunchroom or going on walks.”

Eriksen says that during the height of COVID-19, her office worked to develop virtual events to bring team members together. Recently, they held an optional spring office cleanup and ice cream social.

“It gave employees an opportunity to come to City Hall and clean out their desks,” she said. “The ice cream social was outside, and it was a really fun event.”

While building teams virtually requires more intentionality, the virtual environment does offer advantages in that larger meetings are easier to organize, as are trainings, managers report.

“It used to be such a challenge to get all employees all together. We would have all-hands meetings every couple of years,” Eriksen said. “Now, they are held a couple of times a month and are recorded for people who miss them.”

She reported that about 15 people used to attend the department’s data learning events, but now that they are virtual and recorded for later viewing, up to 80 people can attend.

Smith said managers in Alaska are maturing in “understanding the social dynamics of hybrid work” and in monitoring employee output.

“There is a potential for isolation,” Smith said of employees who work from home.

Brittain said he believes his teams have been very effective working remotely on transactional work; however, it has been more difficult to successfully integrate multiple teams into a project.

“We have had strength in core teams, but it has been more difficult reaching across boundaries and making sure others are involved,” he explained.

One of the big questions hovering around remote work is worker productivity. Are they more or less productive in a remote environment and how can productivity be measured? For Cutright, productivity is measured in the same way in a remote environment as it is in an office: Did the needed projects get completed?

“To me, the measure is if the work gets done. … In the end it is about business services and whether we are serving our customers and being effective,” Cutright said.

Mena, of Orange County, said his department measures employees’ productivity through weekly status reports based on projects and timelines.

“I oversee 911 and 311 calls. Those are simple to measure based on how many calls were responded to, the time it took to respond and how many were not responded to,” he explained, adding that productivity has been good in the remote environment.

“At the same time, if we see something is not working as expected, maybe [an employee] needs to come in and spend a week in the office and we brainstorm and we see what the issues are,” Mena said, adding that he has rarely had to bring an employee in.

But burnout also is a growing problem among remote workers, since the line between work and home is blurred. Some employees actually work longer hours at the same time that their home commitments may be greater due to having children learning from home. Employers need to be mindful of this growing problem. A recent Microsoft workplace survey of both the private and public sectors found that 54 percent of respondents felt overworked while working remotely and experienced a 148 percent increase in weekly meeting times and 42 percent more Teams chats after hours.

Brittain, of Maine, made mindfulness training available to employees in an effort to help them achieve a stronger work-life balance. Workplace experts advise managers to check in with employees regularly to see how they are faring with remote work.

Lea Eriksen, CIO, Long Beach, Calif.
In Long Beach, Calif., Director of Technology and Innovation Lea Eriksen said about two-thirds of employees work from home each day.
Frank Rogozienski


The ability to work remotely has been received positively by the majority of workers, tech leaders say. It has boosted morale. Now, as more employers have adopted the practice, employees consider the possibility of working remotely when they are deciding whether to stay in their current positions or are weighing another employment opportunity.

“We don’t mention in job ads that telework is an option, but I think we may incorporate that. It may offer an attraction,” Cutright said.

None of the tech leaders contacted for this story allow employees to live out of state, primarily due to the issues presented in calculating state taxes owed. Some are considering the practice of so-called “borderless hiring,” however, where employees live in the state of their choosing. Mena said Orange County “is moving in that direction.”

Some government employers do require that employees live within driving distance of the city or county so they can come into the office in the case of an emergency or other need. Long Beach requires that employees live within a three-hour drive of the office. Officials in Maine advise employees to be prepared to come into the office should their electricity or Internet fail.

A recent report from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) recommends remote and flexible work as a way to increase diversity and inclusion. Remote work can bring more underrepresented groups into the workplace. Smith said that has been the case in Alaska, pointing to the staff member who works remotely full-time from his home village.

“Individuals not located near a government office have been able to be hired,” he explained. “It has allowed us to increase economic opportunity to some more remote villages and locations in the state and bring more voices into state government that have not been there before because they did not want to relocate.”
Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine. She moved to Portland in 2019 after a 30-year stint living and working in California. A UC Berkeley graduate, Pamela worked at numerous daily newspapers including The Sacramento Bee. As a freelance writer, she has written about health care, education, technology, climate change, and water issues. She has two adult sons and a mischievous cocker spaniel.