As with all other organizations, state and local governments experienced a massive workforce disruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But to the surprise of many public agencies, employee productivity and morale improved while working from home.

“The impact, surprisingly, has been very positive,” says Maryland Secretary of Information Mike Leahy. “I am amazed at how folks have adjusted to teleworking, and 99 percent of the comments we've received have been very positive, that they really like not having to commute through traffic.”

Leahy made those comments on a recent webinar, “Taking Your Work Virtual: How State and Local Governments are Moving Their Workforces and Workplaces Into the Digital Era.” The conversation was part of the ongoing Crisis Response Initiative, a joint program from Government Technology and Governing that seeks to equip government leaders with tactics to respond to crisis and the new normal ahead.

The biggest challenge so far, Leahy said, is some employees working too hard. “Folks, because they aren't taking breaks, they get up, they start working in the morning, they might eat a sandwich sitting at the computer at lunchtime. So they're working longer. […] I have on a number of occasions had to tell folks, ‘Stop and take an hour off.’ Which isn't what we typically hear about government employees.”

To help ensure productivity, Leahy noted that managers are checking in with employees more frequently and discussing more specific aspects of what they are working on each day. And his own IT department has implemented some tools that allow supervisors to see how many lines of code employees are working on.

“We have a number of metrics that we've been not only keeping track of, but publishing to our employees. And so they have a benchmark, and as I said, production has actually gone up.”

In the city of San Jose, Calif., the focus is now shifting toward building out better digital capabilities for the road ahead.

“That means, how are we going to take our processes, our practices, our rituals, to a highly remote state?” said San Jose CIO Rob Lloyd, who joined Leahy on the webinar. The other main area of concern, he said, is cybersecurity. “How do we address a lot of these risks that we're seeing and are quite worried about? Because the criminals out there have noticed that remote work presents more vulnerabilities. And they also have been tracking all those articles about the billions and trillions of aid that are going to governments. And we're seeing some pretty nasty patterns.”

Lloyd also spoke of the difficult challenge of maintaining agile government decision-making in an era of working from home. “A lot of agile is ritual. And how you establish those rituals physically is in many ways easier because you have a practice and a culture.” Managers, he said, “are going to have to learn how to take that remote, but also meet the human needs of forming a team where you feel like you are a part of something.”

You can learn more about how governments are meeting the challenges of the pandemic at governing.com/crisisresponse.

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