Cities explore remote work post-COVID
During the height of COVID-19, many of us learned we could continue working from our homes — even late-night TV hosts — with today’s technology. Zoom calls and meetings with the constant reminder “you’re on mute” became daily or weekly occurrences for many of us.
Now that the worst of COVID is behind us, many employers — including municipalities — are discovering their employees would like to continue to work from home. The Municipal spoke to two cities that have implemented remote work programs for their employees.
Redding, Calif., had a hybrid remote work program approved by its city council late last summer. City Manager Barry Tippin explained the driving force behind the city taking this action.
“With the workforce of today, the expectations of employees are that employers offer more flexibility and opportunities for more of a life/work balance,” he said. “As a natural result, the workplace needs to look at more opportunities for workplace flexibility — the private sector is doing it; the government is generally a little slower. We want to be a competitive employer, have a workforce with higher morale and satisfied employees. We want to be an employer of choice.”
Tippin said he thinks the workplace was naturally heading in this direction but COVID accelerated the demand from the employee’s perspective and sped up the city’s development of a policy probably by five to 10 years.
“Without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have accelerated our technology and pressed our information technicians to find the sources to enable our employees to work remotely. It forced us to find solutions to those problems, and we found out we could get quite a lot accomplished through video conferencing,” he said.
Redding’s policy listed what it considered the benefits of remote work, including the ability to function during an emergency when the regular worksite is inaccessible; efficient use of city resources, such as office space; recruitment and retention of highly qualified employees; greater flexibility for employees and departments; improved employee morale and job satisfaction; reduced employee absenteeism; decreased energy consumption — air pollution, traffic and parking congestion; among others.
The policy also lists eligibility by position and employee and states that the “department director and city manager/designee has the absolute discretion to determine whether a position/employee is eligible to work remotely,” utilizing criteria listed in the policy.
Position eligibility includes when job duties are independent in nature and the remote work will not negatively affect the workload of others; are primarily knowledge-based; do not require frequent interactions at the worksite with supervisors, colleagues and the public; and lend themselves to measurable deliverables.
Individual employees may be eligible for remote work when they are dependable and responsible; have the ability to work independently; have demonstrated motivation and a consistently high rate of productivity; effective communication with supervisors, coworkers and customers; a high level of skill and knowledge of the job; and have the ability to prioritize work effectively with good organizational and time management skills.
Other considerations include but are not limited to the employee’s ability to create a functional, reliable and secure remote workplace and the ability to measure the employee’s work performance from a location separate from the regular worksite.
Tippin said city officials felt it was important to have both position and employee eligibility “because you could have two people in the same position and one is suitable and the other isn’t, just because of the nature of their personalities or how they function. One is not better than the other, just different,” he said.
The policy states the city manager or department director may deny, end or modify a hybrid agreement at any time with written notice, and an employee also has the right to end the agreement or request a change.
According to the policy, “A remote worker must perform work during scheduled remote work hours. Employees may not engage in activities while working remotely that would not be permitted at the regular work site, such as child, elder or other dependent care. Remote workers may take care of personal business during standard break periods, as they would at the regular work site. Following approval, remote workers are required to comply with the terms of their Hybrid Remote Work Program Agreement and must be accessible and readily available via telephone, video-conferencing and email just as they are when working at the main work site.”
Tippin was asked how they’d monitor what an employee was doing, and he said mainly by trusting the honesty of the employee, but the city could request the employee hop on a video-conferencing site like Teams, and there shouldn’t be kids in the room. He said there’s also ways to measure productivity and ensure the employee is performing as expected.
“We’re also cognizant of the fact that just because an employee is at the office, it doesn’t mean they’re not goofing off. We want to make sure we’re not barring a good tool to retain and recruit employees (and we’re not saying) just because they’re across town we trust them less than an employee who is in the building but on another floor,” he said.
The policy also lists equipment and supply requirements, stating that either city equipment or personal equipment may be used, but no city information should be stored on personal equipment.
The city manager said officials decided to make this a pilot program, and that’s what the city council approved.
“They approved the pilot program and policy and gave me the authority to amend the policy in minor ways working with the employee’s union, and we’ll bring it back to them in the late spring or summer,” he said. “We wanted to make sure, because if I was pressed today, I’d say we didn’t have the ability to do fully remote so I wanted to play it out and make that determination (on fully remote work) later.”
Tippin said the city already had a couple of employees working fully remotely. He said one is an employee who was moving out of the city and wanted to continue working for the city. That employee is an analyst so they prepare financial and federal reports and work independently anyway with supervisor oversight. The other fully remote employee is a management assistant in the city manager’s office who works on contracts, program development, etc.
“Both are working very well,” he said.
He envisions any future remote workers would be on a hybrid program, requiring they’d be in the office for a couple of days a week.
“Long term, I could see the possibility for more fully remote work for some positions — information technology and programming — but even with fully remote, we’d likely require them to be in the office once a quarter for a few days,” he said.
Tippin added that, generally speaking, directors and supervisors feel the need to have them put time in the office. “It’s difficult to make human connections. My experience is — over Zoom — you don’t have those same human connections.”
When asked which positions he envisions would work well for remote work and wouldn’t, he responded, “We’re a full-service city, so we still need a permit counter person. People come in all the time, but hybrid could work, especially as we have more electronic submittals. There’ll always be a need to have people here. The same with the utility customer service — people come in to pay their utility bills all the time.”
Obviously police, fire and maintenance positions would never be remote. The best positions for remote work, according to Tippin, are engineers, planners, analysts and accountants.
“When you get down to it, only a handful of positions would work to be fully remote — maybe a dozen out of our 850 full-time employees,” he said.
On the other side of the country from Redding, the city of Philadelphia approved a remote work policy for its employees in June 2021.
Joy Huertas, MA, deputy communication director in the mayor’s office, responded by email stating, “Many employees have been reporting to their offices since June 2020 in some form. The employees who’ve been working on-site — either full time or hybrid — represent about 97% of the workforce.
“However, as a response to changing expectations around remote work, the city implemented a remote work policy effective June 11, 2021, that allows departments to approve work from home for up to three days per week for their employees. We expect the departments will continue to use this policy where appropriate.”
According to the opening statement of the policy, “The city of Philadelphia’s workforce provides essential services to over 1.5 million city residents, including protecting resident’s lives, providing residents with educational opportunities, and improving resident’s health. Although providing those services often requires an on-site presence, the city remains committed to enhancing the work-life balance of its employees and offering flexible working environments when possible.”
The policy states the primary goal is to “enhance workplace flexibility while ensuring that city employees continue to deliver high-quality work product that meets the need of city government and city residents.”
Although they are not titling it a “hybrid” policy, it does state remote work would be permitted for a maximum of three days a week unless the appointing authority has received authorization to exceed the maximum from appropriate cabinet members. In emergency declarations, for example, employees may be authorized to work virtually for extended periods of time.
Employees are offered two arrangements — either a set schedule (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for example) or core hours.
Under the set schedule agreement, employees will be expected to adhere to that schedule and provide services, either internally or externally, during a set period and would not be expected to work outside of that schedule.
Under the core hours agreement, specific hours would be designated by the appointing authority when the employee is expected to be working, for example, from 10 a.m. to noon and 2-4 p.m., and then the employees are permitted to flex the remainder of their workday. Core hours’ virtual work should be used when employees are expected to be available to work collaboratively or answer questions, but also have self-directed tasks that may be completed without direct interaction or supervision. Employees are still expected to complete the minimum work hours required, whether that is 7.5 hours or 8 hours a day or 75 hours biweekly.
Some of Philadelphia’s general guidelines include those who work remotely regularly should have an ergonomic workplace free from distractions, and the home office may be approved by a departmental safety officer. Virtual work must be conducted using city-owned devices — laptops, phones and when necessary one set of peripherals (keyboard, mouse, etc.) will be provided to employees working virtually. Employees must adhere to safety measures and must use both multi-factor authentication and virtual private network client, both provisioned by the Office of Innovation and Technology to strictly manage access to their city email and network credentials in order to preserve and protect city data and technology operations vulnerable to compromise. Personal electronic devices are not allowed to be used to conduct city business.
The policy also states employees will not be reimbursed for expenses related to home internet service or office supplies. Employees should obtain office supplies on-site.
Employees are expected to obtain care for dependents so they can work effectively. This requirement may be relaxed during exigent circumstances like illness or school closing, where no alternative is available.
The policy has a section listing the responsibilities for appointing authorities, supervisors and employees. Like Redding’s policy, Philadelphia’s sample work agreement states it is a pilot policy. In Philadelphia’s case, the agreement lasts for six months and then will be reviewed to determine if it will continue.
Tippin offered these suggestions to other municipalities looking to enact remote work policies. He said it starts with communicating with staff to discuss where the city is headed and what the expectations are and communicating with leadership and the city council the intent and reason officials are moving in this direction and what the benefits are to the city.
“Ultimately, the community has to accept it as a municipality needs to be open and pragmatic and deliberate in messaging,” he said.
Secondly, he advised, “(Decide) in advance what is important to your organization and put that down in the policy”
For example, it was important to Philadelphia to make that distinction between job positions and people for the reasons previously stated.
“Be diligent and identify those things with your leadership team,” he advised.
Making sure the technology and the Wi-Fi are available in the city and the place where the employee will be working from is critical. “Lastly, I think it’s really important that you make it a test or pilot program,” Tippin said. “I think the worst thing I could do was jump fully in with a permanent policy and then have to unwind it. Everyone understands this is a pilot and it could go away.”
Cities explore remote work post-COVID — No Comments
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