A pandemic, remote work and ‘the new normal’
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of our society – including the way local government workforces perform their day-to-day operations. The virus forced employees out of their offices and into their homes. Essential workers have staggered their shifts and limited their interaction with the public and each other. Remote work has become the norm, and virtual service delivery has become critical, leaving many communities scrambling to digitize services.
However, the pandemic might also be an opportunity to reassess the way we think about the way the work of local government is performed. Questions of how, why and where abound. One thing is for certain, though, this is a turning point for government, and it’s up to local leaders to determine what the new normal will look like.
The importance of policy
The workplace policies most local governments] had in place prior to the pandemic were really meant for in-person engagements Ryan Park, state and local government marketing manager at Laserfiche, says. “As the shift to remote work has taken place, it’s definitely caused a disruption in being able to effectively and collaboratively work from home.”
However, despite these dramatic changes in how and where the work is being performed, it’s still the ultimate goal of local government to provide programs and services to their residents as efficiently as possible and at the best return on investment for their tax dollars, Jason Grant, director of advocacy at the International City/County Management Association, says. Although the current situation has necessitated less face-to-face interaction, the work of local government still needs to be accomplished – we don’t have the luxury of closing up shop to wait this out, he says.
While there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to these workforce transitions, it’s important to ask how we will manage the needs of the people and protect local government employees while following the guidance coming from the leaders in the state and federal governments as well as the scientific community, Grant says. This balancing act should be at the core of every decision made during the pandemic.
With this in mind, Grant says there are a lot of opportunities for re-imagining how local governments accomplish their work, and various communities are approaching the challenges differently. “Some immediately implemented telework, some didn’t. For some it was necessary, for some it wasn’t,” he says. Some communities were better prepared for this transition than others – they had the IT infrastructure in place, they had the crisis management plans written. “The challenges or obstacles will be different from locality to locality,” Grant adds.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t best practices for managing decentralized teams. For these lessons, it’s helpful to look at both private and public sector entities that were implementing remote work structures before the pandemic.
The transition to telework and virtual service delivery
“If you’re going to use telework, there are certain things you need to have in place,” Grant says. “One is your management practices and your personnel policies.” During this period of transition, these policies must be clearly defined, and they need to be robust. Employees need to have defined communication paths to their supervisors; they need to know how they will be submitting deliverables in the new virtual environment. Expectations need to be clear, and communication needs to be open and frequent.”
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