IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Next Normal: Louisiana Staff Navigate Back from COVID

Staff at various Louisiana government agencies are returning to the office, but their perspective and toolset have changed. They’ve learned new communication tech and experienced a different kind of work-life balance.

A laptop with icons around it symbolizing different aspects of remote work, on a blue background.
Shutterstock/Andrey Suslov
Government agencies are making tough choices about what the future of work should look like, as the pandemic enters a new phase.

Panelists representing state, local and parish agencies said during the Louisiana Virtual Digital Government Summit* that their teams are now back in the office full or at least part time, but not in the same way they had been pre-COVID-19. Communication methods, technology use and expectations of work-life flexibility have all shifted.

As staff once again sit down in government buildings, speakers hoped they would be doing so with new efficiency and better collaboration enabled by the digital tools that employees had no choice but to become familiar with.

Staff also have adjusted to work-from-home — and proven that they can get their jobs done that way — which may force agencies to think twice before insisting personnel be on-site every day, speakers said.

TECHNOLOGY CRASH COURSE


Employees before the pandemic were likely to have learned particular ways for handling tasks, then stuck by those methods even as tools emerged that could make the work smoother, said Bert Lousteau, IT director for the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal. The shift to remote operations suddenly made those older methods untenable, however, forcing staff to adopt technologies they’d previously bypassed.

“What I think is going to promote the future use of [these tools] is the fact that it was pretty much said, ‘You’re going to use this or you're not going to work,’” Lousteau said.

Many agencies had offered technologies like digital employee portals or call-forwarding capable phones long before the pandemic, but those had languished with relatively little use. New Orleans CIO Kim LaGrue noted, for example, that internal employees had had such phones “sitting on desks for 10 years,” but many only turned to IT during the crisis for lessons on how to operate the devices.

NEW COMMUNICATION


The technologies that facilitated remote work introduced new communication styles that agencies are likely to want to retain even as staff return to the office.

Personnel may have missed out on the kind of camaraderie that was common after in-person meetings, but they also discovered that they could simply hop on virtual group calls and quickly start up online conversations without the hassle of first booking conference rooms or trying to catch someone at their desk, said Lousteau and Calcasieu Parish technology director Charles Burton.

Burton emphasized that there is a lot to be gained from personnel’s newfound familiarity in using digital collaboration tools. But at the same time, he said that recent findings raise questions for how long these habits will be maintained.

Data shows the parish’s use of digital communication, collaboration, meeting and sharing tools had been rising fairly steadily, spurred further by sudden boosts in activity driven by major events like the COVID-19 outbreak and 2020 hurricanes. But usage has dipped during the past six months — a finding Burton said was concerning. This could point to the need to examine how the tools can be adjusted to better serve employees, especially as work styles change during the switch back to the office.

TROUBLESHOOTING REMOTE LIFE


Even though they hit initial hurdles, remote operations generally worked. LaGrue said her department first sought to keep a “real tight grip” on staff through efforts like daily virtual meetings, but then relaxed policies as they realized that employees’ locations had little impact on productivity.

“We find that the people who work hard work hard — they work hard whether they’re in the office or they’re working remotely,” she said. “People who weren’t as productive were no more productive if remotely [working], or even less productive.”

Still, there have been hurdles, with work-from-home liable to be both a blessing and a curse for work-life balance. Personnel freed from the dictates of office openings and closings began handling their tasks at any time of day, which could both provide flexibility and a sense of constantly being on call.

“My day used to start when I get to work… I did not realize that was a luxury,” LaGrue said. “My day [now] starts when I wake up and ends before I go to bed.”

Lousteau said that for his team, boundary-setting became essential to preserving work-life balance and ensuring virtual collaboration could continue in a sustainable way long-term.

“It became very clear that people were going to work from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and they were going to expect one of the IT [team] to be able to help them from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” he said. “It started to wear on the group.”

Preventing burnout meant insisting that IT would keep certain set hours, regardless of when other government employees chose to operate. Similarly, LaGrue said that teams had to reconsider how their schedule choices impacted others.

“You have to think about if the work that you’re doing at midnight is affecting the way other people work in the city, in government,” LaGrue said.

IS THERE STILL ROOM FOR REMOTE GOVERNMENT WORK?


Despite having navigated remote engagement during the first year or so of the pandemic, agencies were largely back in the office, panelists said. Burton’s and Lousteau’s teams are both exclusively on-site, while LaGrue said her staff can work two days a week from home.

For more public-facing operations like Burton’s, being on-site helps connect with the community, he said. But Lousteau said most of his department comprises internal employees like research attorneys who can operate from anywhere.

Even so, agencies are likely to reject the idea of workers staying entirely remote, Lousteau said. But he and LaGrue said there are benefits of exploring hybrid models.

“When you take a workforce and you put them in their house and they do their entire job for a year — or even over a year — and then you tell them, ‘You can’t do that unless you’re at the office,’ it’s kind of a hard thing to pass by somebody with any good intelligence,” Lousteau said.

Offering a level of work-from-home can please both current and prospective employees. LaGrue said allowing off-site days eases strain for personnel with certain work-life balance needs, while Lousteau said it may prove a useful strategy for governments seeking to hire.

Younger generations tend to have different expectations from the retiring workforce they would be replacing, Lousteau said. Given that public-sector employers can rarely offer salaries to compete with private-sector offers, they may not want to overlook this low-cost way of improving their appeal to the next generation of candidates.

*The Louisiana Virtual Digital Government Summit was hosted by Government Technology.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


Special Projects
Sponsored Articles
  • How the State of Washington teamed with Deloitte to move to a Red Hat footprint within 100 days.
  • The State of Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management, and Budget (DTMB) reduced its application delivery times to get digital services to citizens faster.

  • Sponsored
    Like many governments worldwide, the City and County of Denver, Colorado, had to act quickly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. To support more than 15,000 employees working from home, the government sought to adapt its new collaboration tool, Microsoft Teams. By automating provisioning and scaling tasks with Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform, an agentless, human-readable automation tool, Denver supported 514% growth in Teams use and quickly launched a virtual emergency operations center (EOC) for government leaders to respond to the pandemic.
  • Sponsored
    Microsoft Teams quickly became the business application of choice as state and local governments raced to equip remote teams and maintain business continuity during the COVID-19 lockdown. But in the rush to deploy Teams, many organizations overlook, ignore or fail to anticipate some of the administrative hurdles to successful adoption. As more organizations have matured their use of Teams, a set of lessons learned has emerged to help agencies ensure a successful Teams rollout – or correct course on existing implementations.