The pandemic has made it more challenging than ever – and more important – for teams to stay connected.

Like other organizations, state and local government agencies deployed a veritable flotilla of communications platforms in response to the disruptions and social distancing requirements of the past year. These solutions helped agencies maintain service continuity and internal communications, and they also were crucial in providing constituents a way to engage with government remotely.

“We have both public and internal-facing approaches,” said Virginia state CIO Nelson Moe.

Virginia is a consolidated IT state; Moe’s centralized office provides technology services for 65 state agencies. So when the pandemic hit, he said, “we went with an entire range” of communications platforms to help meet different agencies’ needs. That included Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Zoom, Verizon’s BlueJeans, Webex and Gotomeeting.

“Agencies could continue to provide constituent services almost undisrupted,” Moe said. “I was able to continue with workflow. [Our IT office requires] highly coordinated collaborative work internally, and we were able to manage that.”

Moe spoke during a recent virtual discussion, “Staying Connected: The Collaboration Tools and Strategies That Can Unite the Government Workforce,” part of an ongoing series of virtual conversations hosted by Governing and Government Technology on the Future of Work.

Bellevue, Wash., CIO Sabra Schneider, who joined Moe in the conversation, agreed that different communications platforms have proven advantageous in different ways.

“Zoom has been a tremendous tool for all of that public-facing engagement,” including city council meetings and committee hearings, Schneider said. For internal communications, the city moved away from a previous video conferencing tool it had been using and adopted Microsoft Teams. As Schneider said, Teams offers a suite of tools – from video calls to chat to file-sharing – that helps approximate the more spontaneous conversations that happen in a physical office.

“There was a hunger internally for people to do more asynchronous communications,” she said, “to have a venue for the more casual kind of ‘coffee chats’ that weren’t happening in person.”

Even as governments like the city of Bellevue and the state of Virginia begin to transition more employees back into the office, communication and collaboration tools will be a permanent fixture.

“We’re deeply thinking right now about, what does the true hybrid environment work look like?” said Schneider. That includes enabling constituents to participate virtually in council meetings. “How do we continue the community engagement remote even when we don’t have to?”

Going forward, government organizations will rely on their private-sector partners to keep them updated on new tools and new features – and new ways to make use of them.

“Keep us apprised of new technologies and new innovation to keep up with digital transformation,” said Moe. “Keep us informed. Come to us and say, ‘I’ve got a good idea.’”

Still, while electronic collaboration tools will always play a role in internal communications, they will never be as effective as in-person interactions, Moe said.

“Humans are meant to be socially interactive face to face, as opposed to little thumbnails. We tried to do virtual happy hours and other social events, but it’s really hard to engage with 200 people when you can’t look them in the eyes. I wish there was a better alternative,” he said. As for the suite of collaboration tools his state implemented during the pandemic? “It was better than nothing.”

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

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