As of March 25, 17 states and more than 50 percent of the U.S. population “will be officially urged to stay at home,” reported CNN. With stay-at-home orders in effect, it begs the question of whether state agencies are prepared to implement work-from-home policies.
According to Government Technology, government groups such as the International City/County Management Association have urged local leaders to prepare their workforce for “the possibility of long-term teleworking.” Some states will get the chance to test telework systems developed for emergencies, while others will scramble to figure out the logistics of virtual work.
In California, for example, one state with stay-at-home orders in effect, the city of Fresno seems prepared. According to CIO Bryon Horn, the city’s 911 call center already has the policy to send staff home with a city laptop and a phone in case of an emergency. Horn also noted that Fresno is implementing a $9.5 million network upgrade to ensure employees can log in from home.
“Right now, I just want to make sure we have enough VPN licenses, and we do, to ensure that if we have a problem or need somebody to work from home, or if we needed to quarantine somebody, they could still have access to their work,” Horn said.
According to Phil Bertolini, co-director of the Center for Digital Government, beyond the technical requirements required to telework, there are questions around productivity and reliability that need to be answered. “The technologies are more prevalent today than they were in the past, but I think it’s more about the work rules … [Telework] is just not something that has caught on tremendously in government yet,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the government to stretch its legs on telework.”
As the former CIO of Oakland County, MI, Bertolini piloted a work-from-home program in 2014, to test not only the technology but management and HR policies. He said there were productivity gains and high satisfaction among employees, but that was because they were prepared. In preparation for an emergency, Bertolini stockpiled PCs so he could provide government-issued laptops to staff if the security of their home device was questionable, reported Government Technology.
“Now we have a global crisis, and agencies are going to be forced to have their people potentially work from home,” he said. “In my county, it took many months to get this stuff straightened out about how to effectively work from home. The question is, has the government thought about this, have they put the right technologies in place, have they put the right policies in place, do they have the right controls in place to [let people work] from home?”
Bertolini said the challenges of managing a remote workforce are likely to be greater when decisions about telework have to be made quickly. In this case, he said local governments might do well to adapt their existing disaster recovery plans. Bertolini cautioned that whatever the answer, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Larger governments are going to have more people involved, which means you’re going to have more disruptions, potentially,” he added. “A small government like a township that doesn’t have that many people, and the government only has three employees, is going to be [less of a problem.]”