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Swift Shift to Telework Proves Public-Sector’s Agility

Many public leaders long believed that the people’s business could not be done from outside the walls of government buildings, but COVID-19 showed government can function from anywhere — quickly.

Two people waving to each other on a video call.
When social distancing orders and recommendations came along in March, the public sector implemented something that many state and local government organizations had largely resisted up to that point: telework. One state IT leader recalled that suggestions of broad adoption of remote work prior to the pandemic had policymakers looking at him as though he had three heads. But suddenly, remote work made a lot of sense.

Agencies varied in their preparedness. Although many organizations leveraged remote work technology that they already had, most had to increase capacity as well as purchase additional equipment by the thousands. Paper-based and in-person services caused greater headaches during this disruptive period, with the crisis accelerating calls for rapid digitization. Emergency procurement rules and add-ons to existing contracts were instrumental in making sure essential services could still be delivered to citizens. IT shops were essential in making the shift, finding support needs skyrocketing as they worked to make sure employees could do their jobs from their homes.

Despite the abrupt change to the status quo, more than a few stakeholders have found that government can move quickly when needed. At the same time, while a crisis can inspire people to come together and make timely changes, the scramble to enable telework in 2020 shows that being proactive with tech solutions before disaster strikes can lower many a heart rate.

The shift to remote work didn’t merely pose technical and logistical considerations. It changed work cultures, raised myriad policy questions in areas as diverse as human resources and public meetings, and increased cybersecurity threats. But in numerous cases, it also led to increases in productivity and efficiency, brought about long-overdue steps toward modernization, and gave leaders new perspective on how talent can be managed and attracted.

Generally, agency heads have found that their staff can perform just as well, if not better, in a remote context. This realization has brought about novel ideas in state government about workforce recruitment. States are talking not only about allowing telework as an option after COVID-19 passes, but also about the possibility of hiring employees who don’t live in the local area. Although some still place a higher value on face-to-face interactions, broadening recruitment efforts in this way could help governments attract and retain talent for historically hard-to-fill positions. Indeed, the pandemic has called into question the traditional notion that public workers always need to be in an office.

Of course, telework can only work if you have broadband in your home. The most obvious obstacle to embracing telework is the lack of reliable, affordable high-speed Internet in many rural and urban communities. This unfortunate disparity in access during such a critical time means that state and local governments have an even larger stake in connecting residents in their communities. This issue can affect the ability of adults to make a living, especially when one considers that an appreciable number of good opportunities might be remote-only in the future.

Education at all levels has felt both the sting of digital inequality and the pressure to translate in-person instruction into remote learning in 2020. Many students, whether in big cities or nonmetropolitan areas, are still having to travel to Wi-Fi access points in order to stay on top of classwork. Meanwhile, some parents are struggling to find a balance between helping their children keep up with homework and taking care of their own remote duties.

In our more socially distanced world, teachers continue to make tough decisions about their approaches to course material. Is there a proper substitute for hands-on learning in every case? And what about young and special needs children who don’t respond as well to virtual lessons? Such pressing questions are why many educators are moving toward hybrid learning models when they can. Tackling responsibilities remotely can have many advantages, but the state of the education field in 2020 suggests that people will continue to experiment with how they can safely maintain closer physical proximity to engage students and ensure forward progress toward educational benchmarks.

This story is part of our 2020 Year in Review series.

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.