Thanks to the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that the workplace will never be the same. Companies and organizations of all kinds are planning for a more flexible future that blends in-office days with working from home. But especially in the cash-strapped public sector – where remote work is seen as a valuable way to cut costs – leaders expect a sea change in the way state and local agencies conduct business.

“The COVID response has really permanently changed how agencies have embraced this,” Georgia CIO Calvin Rhodes said recently. But another important aspect “that really drove us in this direction,” he said, was a mandate from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for every agency to cut its budget by 10 percent. A number of agencies responded by looking at ways to reduce their physical office space, Rhodes said. “Really, we’re viewing it now as a long-term strategic element for us to try to keep and retain staff.”

Rhodes made his comments on a recent webinar, “The Remote Work Workplace: Policies, Procedures and Processes for a New Era,” part of a new series of virtual discussions convened by Governing and Government Technology on the Future of Work.

In Georgia, remote work isn’t just seen as a way to reduce overhead expenses, Rhodes said. It’s a valuable tool for expanding the pool of potential state employees.

“The governor has given a directive to all agencies to hire people from all across the state,” he said. “We typically had looked to the metro [Atlanta] area. But [remote work] gives us the ability to go after talent. We’re in a very competitive market for talent here in the Atlanta area, and this really opens that up.”

Georgia agencies are even working with state human resources officials to write specific definitions of flex-work into future job descriptions. Under the new definitions, a “teleworker” might physically be in an office one or two days a week. A “remote worker,” meanwhile, may come into the office “once or twice a year,” Rhodes said.

“When you look at the private sector companies we compete with, [their approach to flex-work] is going to look different,” he said. “So, to be competitive, we’re going to have to embrace this.”

But there’s one other factor that may even be more important in cementing the future of remote work, he added: “Our teams really like it.”

Of course, managing remote teams isn’t as simple as merely allowing employees to work from home. States and localities must revisit a host of policies and procedures to ensure that remote workers are engaged and productive.

King County, Wash., for example, has taken several steps to help transition employees to work from home, said county CIO Tanya Hannah, who joined Rhodes in the recent virtual conversation. In the early days of the pandemic, for instance, King County provided $1,000 stipends to help employees set up a home office. It conducted video evaluations of workers’ home setups to make sure they’re ergonomically safe. The county even created a $9 million daycare fund to help defray costs for employees with children who were now learning from home.

Now, as the county turns its attention to longer term plans for a hybrid work future, it’s confronting policy questions on, say, disaster planning and other contingencies.

And it’s dealing with the very real concern of maintaining group morale and a positive work culture when employees may never see some of their colleagues in person.

“We’re conducting employee engagement surveys,” Hannah said. “We’re trying to understand, what are the needs of our remote workers as well as our on-site employees, those first responders who have to come into the office? We’re designing programs to ensure that our entire workforce is cared for.” That includes comprehensive communication and collaboration tools, along with an increased focus on mental stress and well-being. And like other jurisdictions, King County agencies have hosted online group yoga sessions, chef-led cooking shows, Xbox tournaments and even virtual open-mic nights for public employees.

“Team cohesion is a very big deal when you haven’t seen your team in a year,” Hannah said.

Watch the full discussion, and find other tools for empowering the public workforces, at governing.com/futureofwork.

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