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COVID-19’s Lessons for the New Government Workplace

A new survey shows that public-sector employees are adapting to remote work and that many like it. It also reveals concerns that state and local government employers need to keep in mind.

Remote worker at computer in home.
The coronavirus has dramatically altered the work environment. Across the nation, in government and in the private sector, tens of millions of employees are now working remotely full-time.

Many employers and employees were unprepared for this massive change. The head of remote operations for GitLab, a software company that bills itself as having the private sector's largest permanently all-remote workforce with more than 1,300 employees in 65 countries, described the transition to working remotely as "a process, not a binary switch to be flipped."

However, COVID-19 forced many government organizations to flip the switch, often literally overnight. In addition to technology challenges, this transition affects employees' psychological well-being, performance and productivity.

To understand how employees are faring in this new work environment, earlier this year the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement surveyed state and local government employees. The Employee Connection Survey was also designed to identify lessons learned to help government respond to future workplace challenges. We asked employees about well-being, communication, tools and technology, workload and whether they wanted to permanently continue to work remotely.

The survey generated 19,550 responses, 87 percent of them from local-government employees and 10 percent from state government. The complete results can be found in the survey report, Leading Through a Pandemic: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Public-Sector Workforce.

We asked respondents to describe in three words how they were feeling about the COVID-19 work environment. As the word cloud below shows, the most common responses were "anxious," "tired" and "stressed."

Word cloud
We also asked if employees were designated as essential, and therefore required to continue to report to their normal work locations, or were working remotely. Based on this answer, we then asked each group slightly different questions. As the chart below shows, more than half of the survey respondents reported they were still reporting to their work locations.

What best describes your current work situation?

Work situation chart
The high percentage of essential workers may seem surprising given the national focus on working remotely. But unlike private-sector companies that have transitioned to largely or even completely remote workforces, the nature of government work requires that many public servants must continue to report to their work sites. Tellingly, however, 30 percent of these essential employees did not know in advance that they would be so designated.

Longer term, we wanted to find out if employees working remotely for the first time want to continue doing so. As the chart below shows, 85 percent of the 6,745 respondents working remotely for the first time want to do this permanently, at least part-time.

When it is possible for me to return to work, I would prefer to:

Preference chart
The survey also revealed the following:

• About 81 percent of respondents rated their organizations as doing a good job adapting to the workforce changes caused by COVID-19.

• Seventy-five percent reported that communication from leaders and co-workers was helpful. Email was mentioned most often followed, in order, by live video, phone and instant messaging.

• Almost 40 percent said their workloads have increased since the pandemic. On the other hand, about 12 percent reported that their workloads have decreased.

• While 69 percent of essential workers said they have the equipment and supplies to protect themselves, and 72 percent said they were able to maintain a safe distance from their co-workers, 18 percent disagreed with both statements.

• Essential employees were less satisfied than remote employees with how their organizations have adapted to COVID-19, their knowledge of their organization's pandemic policies, and communication from leaders.

The survey results provide lessons to help public-sector organizations operate effectively and deliver services despite COVID-19, as well as for how government can deal with future workforce disruptions. Specifically, we recommend that government leaders:

• Clearly identify and communicate — in advance — which employees are essential. This will prevent confusion and ensure that the organization and the essential workers themselves are prepared.

• Provide employees with wellness and mental-health support and resources during stressful periods.

• Give essential employees the tools and support they need, especially if they are risking their health and safety to serve constituents.

• Measure and monitor work to minimize burnout since large percentages of both essential and remote workers said their workloads have increased, and also ensure that employees with decreased workloads continue to be productive.

• Use multiple communication approaches — not just email — to provide employees with the information they need.

• Respond to employee demands to work remotely permanently by equipping managers and supervisors with the knowledge, skills and tools to manage remote workers.

• Redesign jobs to adapt them to remote work while providing employees with the technology they need, and give employees the flexibility to balance their work and personal lives.

• View working remotely as an opportunity to expand the search for talent without regard to where employees live.

• Guard against creating two classes of employees - remote and essential - that could be perceived as the haves and have-nots.

• Systematically ask employees for feedback to identify and meet their needs.

It may be a cliché that the flipside of challenge is opportunity, but this is true of our new world of work. Showing public employees that we care, and giving them the support and tools they need, can drive employee productivity, well-being and engagement and, therefore, organizational performance — regardless of where employees are physically working.

Robert J. Lavigna is senior fellow-public sector for the Ultimate Kronos Group.
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