In November 2018, we posted an article exhorting the benefits of telecommuting and the public sector. At the time, it was a missive to encourage the public sector to consider the flexibility of a remote work environment as a valuable recruitment and retention tool. We could have not foreseen the real-world mandate to come down fourteen months later when the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly pushed everyone out of the office into home office environments.
Many public agencies had previously not given much thought to a telework policy except in instances where an employee needed to work from home to care for a sick child or meet the cable technician, for example. Now, practically overnight, an entire staff needs to work remotely. Though this present time we are living through is an unprecedented global situation and agencies need to remain flexible and fluid to manage the needs of their own organizations, employees, and the general public, there are some teleworking guidelines agencies might consider:
- Telework policy development. If your agency does not already have a policy in place for remote working, it may seem challenging (if not insurmountable) to develop one now in the midst of the chaos that COVID-19 has caused in your agency. While the situation is not ideal, it is not impossible to put policies in place to bridge the current gap with the understanding that it will be necessary to revisit and revise policies as needed. At a minimum, a telework policy should include identifying the type of work that can be performed remotely, rules on employees’ obligations around maintaining the security of agency systems and information, accountability for employee work time, and protocols for contact and communications with outside stakeholders.
- Possible implications on the application of labor and wage-and-hour laws. Teleworking does not excuse employers from compliance with labor and wage-and-hour laws, so it is important to establish systems for tracking compliance for remote workers. For instance, non-exempt employees are still entitled to overtime pay consistent with FLSA rules even when they are working from home. Monitoring compliance with employment laws for a large remote workforce can be challenging, so it is important to partner with your employees by clearly and consistently communicating the rules and expectations for working remotely, and holding employees accountable just as you would for a traditional workforce. Employees should be reminded that rules around work schedules, overtime approval, and time off still apply. It is also important to communicate that, although the environment in which work is performed is different, employees are expected to conduct themselves professionally and appropriately just as they would otherwise.
- Cost and feasibility of technology rollout. Even those agencies with the most progressive approach on technology are struggling to meet technology demands for the sudden transition to a remote workforce. As the shelter-in-place directive continues, your agency’s technology resources should be provided for those employees whose duties can be performed remotely and who are most critical to maintaining basic service levels and operations. Once basic services have been stabilized, the next step will be identifying the technology gaps that exist for those less critical functional areas, and determining the priority levels for technology acquisition for those areas within budget and time constraints.
- How to foster and encourage team connectivity. A risk with a remote workforce is the silo effect and the impact it has on productivity, particularly for those employees who thrive in a collaborative workplace. Work groups and teams should be encouraged to continue collaboration in this new virtual workplace just as they would in the physical workplace. Video conferencing is the best solution for virtual meetings since it is more engaging than traditional audio conference calls and the brain processes visual information more effectively and efficiently; however, even audio-only conference calls will continue to keep staff connected and productive.
The partnership between HR and IT has perhaps never been as important to organizations as it is now. Maintaining service to the public is critical during any emergency situation, and developing a strong framework for optimizing utilization of a remote workforce will be key in the weeks and months to come.
Fortunately, at Koff & Associates, we have been set up to work remotely for several years, therefore client service has been uninterrupted during this unique place in time. Though we prefer in-person client meetings and interaction, for the time being, we look forward to connecting in new virtual ways with our clients and each other.
Here are some links related to COVID-19 offering guidance to agencies: