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Local Government Plots a Careful Return to the Office

City workers in Cary, N.C., are planning to return to the office at the end of February, nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic sent them remote. However, a return to pre-COVID-19 work life may be forever in the past.

Cary, N.C. town hall
Cary, N.C. town hall.
<a href="" target="_blank">KAD Photo</a>
City leaders in Cary, N.C., have set Feb. 28 as the date employees will return to office work.

Yes, that’s still months away, but setting the date puts in place a plan to transition — in some form — from a remote work setting to what many are calling a “hybrid” arrangement. While some workers return to city hall, others may continue to work from home, and still others may do a bit of both.

“I can’t imagine that’s a full office in February,” said Tom Yeatts, chief technology officer and chief strategist for state and local government at ServiceNow, remarking on the plan by Cary. “I imagine that’s going to be certain workers. Maybe people who are more productive at the office, but want to return.

“But you’re going to have to now manage remote workers versus onsite workers and treat everyone fairly. And I think that’s going to be a challenge that policy will have to address also,” Yeatts added, in comments during the North Carolina Virtual Digital Government Summit* last week.

During the panel discussion, Nicole Raimundo, chief information officer for Cary, a city of about 135,000 residents, recalled the quick transition to work-from-home arrangements the city launched in March as the COVID-19 crisis swept across the nation. At the time, Cary — like many cities — anticipated remote working would last for a month or two. Now, nearly six months later, IT and other civic leaders are looking back on the many lessons learned, as well as looking ahead to a world where more workers clock in at home and even more government services are accessed remotely.

“For at least the near term we’re going to keep pushing as many sort of e-delivery, remote services that we can, as possible. And continue to think about new ways of doing work,” said Raimundo. “This, to me, is a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate that, and building out new services, not just for now, but in the future. Because I don’t think we’re ever going to go back 100 percent to the way we were before. I just don’t see that happening.”

If a sizable portion of the workforce continues the remote work pattern — and many public-sector and private-sector employers are saying they will — this opens the door for new policies and upgrades around areas like technology and management.

When Cary sent its workers home, the city was rolling out Microsoft Teams, a video conferencing platform similar to Zoom. That rollout became more timely than ever, given the immediate need to maintain office communications from numerous remote locations.

“It was like instant adoption,” Raimundo recalled. “I found that a little bit fascinating, in thinking about how much time we put into training and tools, and rolling things out slowly and cautiously, and clearly, we didn’t do that this time.”

It’s going to take more than a video conferencing platform to effectively support and enable successful and permanent remote work setups, experts say. Management will have to become particularly attuned to ensuring all workers feel engaged and connected. Performance metrics may need to be re-examined, among other changes.

“I think it’s really important that we make sure people, our employees, that we’re still connected. That we’re still a part of the state and local government team and that we’re still part of the IT group,” said Don May, principal architect for security at AT&T, in his comments on the panel.

“Keep the human touch on things,” Yeatts added. “This is actually a great opportunity for us to know more about our co-workers, even though we’re not physically with them.”

“It’s time where, we really need to embrace the, kind of, chaos,” Raimundo chimed in. “I think if we can do that, and just take care of ourselves, we’re all going to be much better employees. We really are.”

*The North Carolina Virtual Digital Government Summit was hosted by the Center for Digital Government, a part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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