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Should State IT Agencies Be Recruiting More Remote Workers?

Remote government work can have many benefits, as the last several months have shown. But whether state IT agencies should recruit more remote workers, regardless of where they live, remains an open question.

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The explosion of remote work in government IT during COVID-19 has led to some discussion about whether IT agencies should expand their remote recruiting — both within and outside of state borders.

“For the most part, folks have been feeling like remote work has been going more smoothly than they had anticipated … it seems that state and local governments are becoming more open to the possibility of more remote work and people working from other areas of the country,” said Rivka Liss-Levinson, research director for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. 

Liss-Levinson said that although the success of and interest in remote government work varies by department and state, expanding remote recruiting could enhance diversity in agencies and also help leaders attract workers that they often have trouble finding. 

“We know that there are certain job functionalities within state government that are particularly difficult to fill for,” she said. “The possibility to recruit from outside the immediate area could help with that. It could help with specific skill sets.”

Missouri now has a plan to open up its state IT positions to remote workers who don’t live in or near the capital of Jefferson City, CIO Jeff Wann said. Because of existing technological capacity, Missouri was able to smoothly transition about 17,000 workers to remote work after the pandemic started. The positive experience made the state more comfortable with the idea of broadening the talent pool from which it hires staff.

“In some cases, we found that efficiency was even better [with remote workers],” Wann said. 

There’s a caveat, though: Wann said his team isn’t calling it “remote work.” The preferred term is “distributed teams.” From Wann’s perspective, the phrase acknowledges that telework requires a different kind of management style and mindset. 

“It places the emphasis on continued teamwork and how we’re going to work together as teams in a distributed manner,” he said. “We’re kind of excited about the new mantra that we’ve given it.”

The main idea behind Missouri’s plan is tapping into more of the state’s talent. Wann said cities like St. Louis and Kansas City have a tremendous number of IT professionals. A task force is currently reviewing policies and procedures to ensure that the remote recruitment process aligns with HR requirements. 

Wann added his team has looked at the possibility of hiring remote staff who live outside of Missouri, but for now, the focus will be on capitalizing on talent within the state. 

Montana CIO Tim Bottenfield said while he’s not sure where his state is heading in terms of remote recruitment, staff are still being directed by upper administration to work from home if it doesn’t negatively affect performance. In Bottenfield’s eyes, the shift to remote work has resulted in greater effectiveness and efficiency. 

Right now, only 20 of Bottenfield’s 180 IT staff work in an office, and that’s because they have positions that require physical presence. For the remote workers, meetings are shorter, communication and teamwork have improved, and far less paper is used.

“Everything is digital,” Bottenfield said. “That happened all over the place. Across the entire world, we basically in a couple of months digitized a whole lot of manual processes. As I reflect on it … that’s one of the real great outcomes of this thing that we’ve gone through.”

Bottenfield said he has discussed the possibility of recruiting remote workers during this time, but the conversation hasn’t quite made it to an “official or administrative level.” It’s Bottenfield’s understanding that state staff must reside in Montana to be hired, though the Legislature has made exceptions for certain types of workers. 

Montana will be getting a new administration soon, so that will play a factor in what the state eventually allows on the recruiting front. As far as obstacles are concerned, Bottenfield said that even if technological capability isn’t an issue (it’s not in Montana), expanding remote work would have far-reaching impacts that state leaders will want to consider. 

For instance, Bottenfield knows from conversations that remote work has been better for introverts, who generally seem to communicate more than they did before, than for extroverts. Another challenge is management. “A whole new level of training” will have to be implemented for managers to understand what productivity means, Bottenfield said. 

Additionally, leaders must consider the long-term ramifications of using less office space. Commercial real estate stakeholders will feel the impact if government rents fewer buildings. 

“If I was in that sector of business, I would be a little bit worried right now,” Bottenfield said. 

Rhode Island CIO Bijay Kumar said that while he has seen benefits to remote work, he also wants to be cautious about telework when it comes to recruiting IT staff. 

“People work harder,” Kumar said. “I just want to make sure people aren’t burning out because there is no separation between work and not working at this point.”

Once the pandemic settles, Kumar said the plan is to employ a hybrid model where both onsite and offsite work can be performed. For Kumar, the vision should be “enabling the local workforce to work remotely as opposed to hiring remote talent.”

Because Rhode Island IT doesn’t have a big team, it’s important for staff to be able to collaborate in person when necessary, Kumar said. He has no issue with hiring people from the tri-state area of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, but workers should be able to commute to work. 

The logic is simple: If he hires someone who works remotely from, say, San Francisco, there would be less incentive for that person to continue working for Rhode Island if they happen to see a great opportunity nearby in California. 

Kumar, however, said he is open to hiring remote contractors who live as far away as Hawaii. 

Some states have shown far less interest in expanding remote recruiting. Nebraska CIO Ed Toner said in an email that his division gets enough high-quality workers from within the state and that there are no plans to continue remote work for current staff. 

“We have [eight] service center locations across the State of Nebraska that our workforce can work in person,” he added. 

New Jersey Chief Technology Officer Christopher Rein said there’s no plan for his office to expand remote recruiting and that there has been no discussion to move in that direction, either.

Liss-Levinson said one factor that may discourage agencies from hiring people from far away is the traditional connection between public workers and communities within their state of residence. If one doesn’t live in the immediate area, the dedication or connection to community may not be as high. 

“I see that as being a downside,” Liss-Levinson said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.