Remote Working; More Complex than Technology Capacity
During my career as City Manager, bargaining groups were eager to add “working remotely” to their contract negotiations wish list. Working from home even one or two days weekly, they argued, would reduce their commuting, dry cleaning, dining out, childcare, and other expenses. Apart from economic savings, working from home would improve morale and provide quiet surroundings free of interruptions that plague the office. Productivity would rise.
And, like the Ginsu knife commercials, “wait there’s more”. The City would require less office space, suffer less wear and tear on office equipment, lower its utility bills, and be credited with shrinking its carbon footprint.
If not yet proven, these arguments were both appealing and plausible, however, working remotely was still an emerging trend. Just as there was a laundry list of perceived benefits to all parties, so too there were legitimate considerations to be worked out. Department heads were given modest latitude to permit some remote work, however, we were not yet ready to grant it as a contractual entitlement.
The slow growth of public sector work conducted from home reflects just how complex accompanying considerations are, and how significant a change it represents to the customary in-office paradigm.
Fast forward to 2020. Most government buildings were closed to the public. To reduce exposure and the threat of disease transmission, unprecedented numbers of employees were asked to work from home. Working remotely went from the wish list to a public health and safety mandate. Now that Covid-19 is coming under control, returning to the office is one more act of restoring old routines that are being questioned. What have we learned about the challenges and rewards of working remotely, and should it be included in a post-pandemic new normal?
As some management efficiency professionals have pointed out, we learned that remote working from home is doable, if not yet ideal. This is largely a result of technology that enables most agencies to conduct video meetings, share files, manage projects, track customer service requests, and complete a broad range of E-government transactions online.
However, as has become the trademark of the digital revolution, addressing policy, procedure, and more abstract considerations lags.
Over my career, unfailingly, every organizational seminar and team-building workshop in agencies of all sizes singled out “communication problems” as the primary culprit hindering better outcomes. This continues today even though we are tethered together in an unprecedented and dizzying variety of ways. Decentralizing large factions of the workforce to remote home offices does not bode well for improving the problem, nor does Zoom pose an ideal solution. Communication gurus remind us that 70 to 93% of all communication is non-verbal. For all its value, video chats and conferences cannot hope to capture this vital dynamic, which vanishes when communicating telephonically. It is equally important to remember how much critical information is exchanged between workers outside of online meetings. Many structured in-office meetings conclude only to result in “pop-up” meetings in a colleague’s office. Clarification of direction and follow-up questions occur regularly in hallways, lunchrooms, and at the water fountain, often by workers who are reluctant to speak up in group settings. These same settings provide spontaneity and synergy that frequently give rise to creative and innovative ideas and solutions.
Organizational Culture and Brick and Mortar Confidence
Case studies have proven that the best companies typically do an outstanding job in creating a unique brand and cultivating an organizational culture that promotes their core values. Much of their success depends on well-honed and carefully executed strategies. However, essential messaging also takes place through workplace signage, in-person interaction with the public, the professional imagery of uniforms, and unplanned meetings convened to take full advantage of a “teachable moment”.
Public confidence in local government is steadfastly highest among the levels of government and is reinforced in numerous ways. The fact that county and municipal workforces are more visible and available, and first on the scene when emergencies occur is reassuring to the community. Fully staffed City Halls and County Offices reinforce this accessibility, as well as strengthen the perception of quality service delivery. Notwithstanding the fact that remote working is becoming more commonplace, studies have shown a perception of sub-par service still exists when customers are asked to rate their satisfaction of services received and the only variable is service location origin. Confidence in a worker’s knowledge, competence, and caring can suffer based on how remote she is from the office. Finally, communities and elected officials have demonstrated a strong desire to have local government workforces generously represented by neighborhood residents. And, for good reasons. This goal boosts local employment, spurs local commerce, breeds familiarity, increases connectedness, hardens stakeholder interest, and helps promote diversity. However, even a couple of days of remote working makes it easier for some employees to move further away from City Hall and the community it serves.
Supervision, Management, and Performance
Management and supervision of remote workers can present challenges. With some jobs such as call taker and data entry clerk, both output and quality control are easier to measure. The examination of logs, and review of recorded conversations or transactions processed, help when evaluating employee performance. However, jobs that primarily involve relationship building, planning, complex policy formulation, problem-solving, training, and public affairs may be more difficult to monitor. These jobs require greater independence, may not be subject to calendar deadlines, and do not always result in tangible deliverables.
Regardless the job, it will be difficult to evaluate most employees on some traditional measures. These include efficiency, work habits, teamwork and collaboration, verbal communication skills, and working under stressful conditions more commonly experienced in an office setting but nevertheless important.
It is safe to say that new and effective ways to assess remote work must be found. If not done right, we can expect to be inundated with complaints, challenges, and appeals in response to a host of performance-related decisions dealing with discipline, reward, merit wage increases, and promotion.
Remote Worker Legal Rights and Liability
Labor laws will surely evolve to accommodate the growth in remote work. For now, however, each person’s remote work site is still considered an extension of their corporate office. When working remotely, the employer-employee relationship and corresponding duties and obligations remain in full force. One obvious example of a thorny area is employee injuries on duty. Employers have become more attentive to workplace safety. Many federal, state and local laws have been passed to make the workplace safer and more comfortable. It is not uncommon for agencies to have health and risk management compliance officers on staff. Ergonomically designed workstations and light and sound engineering are now common in the workplace. Additionally, a new focus is being placed on environmental factors and the need to minimize exposure to, and transmission of, infectious diseases. How do we address the inspection, compliance, and correction of hazards in scores of home offices? If ADA accommodations are needed will these costs be absorbed by employers permitting remote work? What will happen to the progress so many agencies have made in reducing certain types of workers’ compensation claims and their attendant costs? Will an employee working from home be entitled to reimbursement for the use of personal office chairs, desks, computers, supplies, telecommunications equipment, power consumption, and other related expenses?
Then there is the issue of enforcing a professional, business-like work atmosphere. A remote worker’s personal conduct at home might incur liability for the employer. People act differently in the familiar surroundings of their home, then they might when they put on business attire, drive to a formal office setting, and work among colleagues and visitors.
Actionable causes brought against employers often cite insufficient training and lack of supervision—both areas that may suffer with remote work.
Is Remote Working During the Pandemic a True Test?
Almost nothing transpiring during the pandemic can be said to be unaffected by it, so is it fair to evaluate the desirability, or even the viability, of remote working based on 2020? Family members forced to stay home vying for attention may have detracted from individual productivity, but their presence may have been an antidote against feelings of isolation. With widespread closures and stay-at-home orders in place, being anchored to a home office may not have seemed as egregiously confining as if there was greater freedom of movement. On the contrary, many people reported they felt safest in their homes during the pandemic when social interaction was subordinated to the need to remain safe. The seductive lure of running errands, shopping, or getting a manicure during your remote workday did not exist. Many of us experienced some level of anxiety throughout the ordeal and it is difficult to identify or calculate this effect on our mental focus, productivity, or outlook. On our remote working experience.
Technological advancements have made remote working more feasible, and the pandemic greatly accelerated its application. Lessons learned during crisis conditions can be invaluable.
A jumping-off point is for each position classification to be thoroughly audited for its offsite suitability and for each employee to be evaluated on her ability to be successful working remotely. The benefits of working remotely make it unlikely that the genie can be returned to the lamp, but it should not be ordained as the new normal without careful planning of a myriad of organization, legal, budget, management and supervision, performance, and behavioral considerations.