Developers looking to do big projects in Waukesha County, Wis., have to get approval from a lot of different disciplines — soil analysis, stormwater, road design and all the rest. Typically, that involves setting up a big meeting so that all the review entities can make recommendations without conflicting with each other.

Just setting up the meetings can be a time-consuming process, but lately it’s become easier. Developers are sending in digital files including all their plans, which are then displayed and reviewed during video conferences. This was designed initially as a workaround, with employees of the suburban Milwaukee region scattered by the coronavirus, but now this more efficient way of holding meetings will become standard.

“We will not go back,” says Dale Shaver, director of parks and land use for Waukesha County. “This has changed the way we work forever.”

It’s one example of how the sudden shift to remote work has changed the way governments operate across the country. The pandemic caused governments to shut their doors quickly, sending workers home and managers scrambling to figure out who would need what tools and what sort of supervision.

There have certainly been some problems, but most administrators say it’s gone better than initially expected. “There have been some bumps along the way, but overall, I think it’s gone much smoother than I would have anticipated its going,” says Amy Fecher, who heads the administration department for the state of Arkansas. “It really has opened up every state’s eyes to what can be done in a remote work environment.”

With states and localities having furloughed thousands of workers due to budget pressures, many employees are more concerned about whether they'll still have a job than whether they can work remotely.

There are other hurdles. For managers, there are extra challenges in measuring productivity when you can’t see your workers. Some workers love remote work, while others miss the sociability of the office, as well as the ease of getting questions answered by dropping by someone’s desk. For many functions that involve direct interaction with the public, it’s still easier to take care of business in person than via computer. The unemployment application debacles in many states have provided flashing warning signs about online processes.

Despite all that, governments that had long resisted remote work have found that it can work well. It might represent a permanent change in how they do business — or at least certain types of business. Depending on adoption levels, it might also allow them to save a good amount of money on leased space.

The wholly unexpected circumstances of the pandemic have given the state of Kansas the opportunity to “dust off our telework policy long term,” says DeAngela Burns-Wallace, secretary of the state Department of Administration. “For those employees who are delivering services effectively remotely, then we want to keep them there."

Good for Employers, Who Still Resist

When Fecher worked for a nonprofit, she worked from home. The days passed by in a blur.

“When I was working remotely, I can remember thinking it was 6 o’clock, I’m just going to check my email while making coffee,” she says. “I’d look up, and it would be noon.”

That’s the potential time trap of working from home. There are no boundaries. You check email and might find yourself working at 6 a.m. over coffee, or at 6 p.m. through dinner.

“I’ve heard from many of the managers that their staff is reporting to them that they are more productive at home without the distractions, that they can focus,” Fecher says.

This points to an irony at the heart of remote work. It’s employers who benefit, seeing improved performance among workers who don’t have to spend time commuting and aren’t faced with as many interruptions through the course of their day. Studies indicate that remote workers are more productive and work longer hours, says Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas who studies the issue.

Glass notes that having children underfoot at home — which is not typical for remote workers under normal circumstances — is an entirely different question. Yet it’s workers themselves who normally lobby to be allowed to work from home, often out of a desire for flexibility in scheduling. “Right now, we have a lot more people who want it than can get it,” Glass says.

More of a Managerial Challenge

As in other states and localities, Fecher in Arkansas had to figure out who could work from home and who couldn’t. Even at the height of the shutdown, there were some public employees who still had to show up in person — workers in public safety, corrections, child protective services and the like.

There have always been a lot of jobs that could be done remotely, such as administrative functions including human resources and finance. For a long time, government workers in those types of fields were the only ones allowed to work from home. Despite the growth in technology, the number of remote workers has barely grown over the past decade, Glass says. “Nobody’s faced this kind of emergency labor change before,” she says. “It’s an interesting natural experiment in innovation and change.”

One reason why governments, along with private companies, have been slow to embrace remote work is that it requires them to come up with different metrics for measuring performance. No matter what a government or organization’s policy, letting people work remotely is generally left to line managers’ discretion. Making it work is more of a management challenge than a question of technology, says Jason Grant, advocacy director for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). “When any personnel policy is in place, it governs the work environment,” he says. “The uncertainty of creating work from home or regular work from home policies, that’s newer for most governments.”

But many governments turned out to be ready to send workers home, even if they weren’t planning on it. Most have continuity of operations plans in place. Those might have been designed for temporary — and local — disruptions, such as fires or inclement weather. They turned out to be handy for an enduring, nationwide (and indeed global) pandemic. Some agencies already had classified workers as essential or knew who could perform most tasks remotely.

Many agencies had already switched from desktops to laptops, or moved some functions to cloud-based applications such as Office 365. Whatever grumbling happened during those transitions — and there’s always grumbling when procedures or equipment are changed — everyone is glad for the flexibility now.

Making Sure Everything Gets Done

Many managers aren’t sure what metrics to use when people are working remotely. John Mondlak, deputy director for development services at Philadelphia’s Department of Planning and Development, believes he has a pretty simple way of keeping track. “The goal for me is to make sure it’s all getting done,” he says.

That’s easier said than done. Rather than being able to catch up with people while he walks around stretching his legs, Mondlak finds that he’s copied on a lot more emails, which proves time consuming. Having an open chat going with his staff is also less efficient than quick conversations in the office. “I’m going back to emails when the kids go to bed,” he says. “It’s a lot more time. It’s not an efficient way to manage.”

Mondlak says he’s now juggling laptops, getting the sound turned on for one video conference while another one’s winding down. Still, no matter the advances in technology, building relationships in person still matters. Glass says that remote workers who never come into the office end up at a disadvantage when it comes time for promotion.

It’s important for managers to keep in touch with their direct reports individually, picking up the phone occasionally and not relying solely on email. Some supervisors are holding virtual town halls, while others are borrowing the idea of going on rounds from hospitals, checking in quickly with everyone. Many are “cascading,” a fancy management term for setting up telephone trees to make sure goals and information are passed down through the ranks.

Some Permanent Shifts?

In work like planning, there’s a lot of public involvement, Mondlak notes, for meetings, hearings and charettes. All those can be done virtually, but being sure to get a good sample of public input when not everyone lives online can be difficult. Even in internal meetings, there are a lot of side conversations that can be useful. Chat functions during teleconferences don’t always work as well.

Mondlak worries about all that. Nonetheless, he recognizes that the pandemic has forced adaptations that might endure. People who might not have taken the time to sit through long meetings at city hall can tune in and monitor the items that interest them remotely. “Even when we go back to having meetings in person, the remote public access stays,” Mondlak says. “Now we don’t need a film crew. Just hit record, and anybody can watch it.”

It’s possible that as they reopen, many offices will be reconfigured. Burns-Wallace says state administrators have been sharing ideas among themselves about signage, floor markings, plexiglass and other physical changes to promote distancing and safety.

The mostly newfound openness to remote work will make it easier for governments to rethink and reshape their footprints. In Kansas, up to 75 percent of the state workforce has been working remotely. That number will drop, but it gives a sense of how many people don’t necessarily need to gather physically on a daily basis.

It’s certainly possible that governments will take a stop-and-start approach, with people coming into the office one week and then being sent home again soon after. “For the future, we want to remain flexible and agile,” Burns-Wallace says. “Can we cut our footprint in half at any given time? Remote work is a critical leverage in being able to ensure we’re keeping our employees safe and delivering services.”

In Waukesha County, the Parks and Land Use department tracks cash flow and project volume, using databases to monitor turnaround times for permits and other applications. It also has a customer service survey that’s monitored daily in terms of employees’ attitudes, timeliness and whether they’re informative. Shaver predicts about 20 percent of his workers will end up telecommuting on a permanent basis.

“Our numbers have actually ticked up a bit as a result of the pandemic,” Shaver says. “Our people are finding that they’re a lot more productive at home.”