COVID-19 presented most of the world with a test: Could work as we know it continue in a virtual environment? This grand experiment has changed the way many, including the public sector, think about remote work. The forced shift towards a distributed and highly virtualised model demonstrates that most people can accomplish work efficiently, effectively, and comfortably even while working remotely.
As employees in the public and private sectors continue to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations may be undergoing a transition that they cannot easily reverse. Workflows will likely have to adaptand workforces may settle into a different kind of life balance. When it’s safe to return to the office, employees may not be returning to the same work. Some may find that the nature of their jobs and expectations about their roles, have changed.
More than just a short-term inconvenience, remote work may be the first step in a long-term transformation, which COVID-19 has just accelerated. Location liberation and the ability to work from anywhere are here now and they’re altering most aspects of how we work, where we work, and what we need to work effectively and collaboratively.
Those benefits fall into four categories:
Effectiveness: Without the distractions found in a traditional office setting and without the need to spend time commuting, remote work can make employees more productive. Canada’s Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos reported that employee productivity increased for many federal workers working from home.1
Efficiency/cost savings: Virtual work can help to reduce operating costs, as organisations spend less on office supplies, office space, furniture, equipment, beverages and food, and janitorial services. Data suggests that if all US federal employees who were eligible for telework had telecommuted just half the time, the federal government would need 25% less office space.2
Empowerment: The flexibility (to work from anywhere and asynchronously) remote work offers to government employees can make them feel more engaged and empowered. Research shows that government employees who telecommute are 16% more engaged, 19% more satisfied and 11% less likely to leave their agencies than nontelecommuters.3
Employer attractiveness: With the ability to work remotely from any geographical location, government agencies now have access to a wider talent pool—especially for hard-to-fill roles or areas with skill shortages (“hot skills”). The flexibility offered can help government become an employer of choice for younger talent and stay competitive with the private sector.
As the COVID-19 outbreak drove almost-daily fluctuations in market conditions and customer requirements, the need to respond swiftly pushed organisations to transform the way they work. The same is true for government agencies, which had to modernise their telework policies and upgrade the IT infrastructure overnight.
The pandemic has forced organisations to go beyond the simple choice between working on site or teleworking. Many have begun to embrace the concept of adaptive workplaces, based on the notion that people and teams should work where they are most productive, inspired and engaged, depending on the task. This concept includes adaptable time, allowing employees to vary their work hours or days; adaptable leave policies; adaptable work locations; and adaptable work itself (rearchitecting work via the use of chatbots/self-service channels). It even includes adaptable roles, using models such as phased retirement and seasonal work to let employees shape their careers.
In April 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government decided to implement a policy that allows remote work for some employees on a full-time or part-time basis—not just during the pandemic, but on an ongoing basis. 4
New Zealand introduced a “flexible-work-by-default” policy across its public sector in 2018. This model, to be fully in place by the end of 2020, assumes that any role is suitable for flexible work, unless there is a good business reason to decide otherwise. Rather than allow all kinds of flexibility in all situations, government employers determine which approaches are feasible for different roles. For example, a front-line worker might not be able to work from home but could possibly vary his or her start and finish times. As of November 2019, 15 of the national government’s 32 public service departments were offering flexible working terms on a trial basis. 5
AI and access to cloud technologies have helped government agencies rearchitect the mechanics of work. According to a 2020 NASCIO report, nearly three-quarters of US states deployed chatbots to assist with questions pertaining to COVID-19, unemployment insurance and other agency services that received unusually high traffic due to the pandemic. For example, Texas Workforce Commission’s “Larry the Chat Bot” was set up in four days and answered queries from around 1.2 million people. 6
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how agile people and businesses can be. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission were among the agencies that swiftly flexed their rules around recruitment and modes of working. 7 The normalisation of working remotely supports the trend towards breaking down silos in government and is having a positive impact on more multidisciplinary working. The use of collaboration in cloud and virtual whiteboarding tools has enabled employees to work together to solve common problems even in a virtual set up. Virtual work has also facilitated employee redeployment, which was an acute need in the initial days of the pandemic. In Ireland, for example, more than 1,000 public sector workers were redeployed from health agencies and universities to support contact tracing. 8
In the wake of the pandemic, the tech services team of the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) rapidly assembled an IT kit that enabled more staff to work from home. To ease the pressure on the DWP staff, the department also overhauled ways of working and temporarily redeployed 10,000 staff to help with processing Universal Credit claims. This exercise helped the department meet urgent needs, plug capacity gaps and support new ways of working. 9
The pandemic exposed the fragility of our work lives. Exhausted and stressed by the struggle to balance personal and professional demands, many employers and employees are assigning greater value to well-being, both physical and mental. Government agencies are also trying to help employees cope.
Their efforts include online tools and resources to help manage well-being needs virtually, wellness programmes that address the need of the hour and organisational policies that put health and safety at the centre of a positive employee experience.
San Mateo County in California, for example, gives government departments grants to help improve wellness among the staff. The resulting programmes have reduced absenteeism and improved factors such as cholesterol scores, blood pressure and weight. A programme focussed on back health produced a 250% return on investment. 10
The UAE government offers a programme of psychological and moral support and mental health consultations to help federal employees cope with circumstances created by COVID-19. 11
Even before COVID-19, the UK National Health Service (NHS) made health, well-being and mental health a priority for its employees. In light of COVID-19, the NHS has partnered with three organisations to offer free mental health mobile apps to its health care staff. 12
A lot of work today simply can’t be done well without high-touch collaboration - a challenge when many people work from home. COVID-19 has shown that humans and technology can perform more powerfully together than on their own. In the response to the COVID-19 crisis, the first logical step for many agencies was to automate and adopt new technologies. As technology becomes a higher priority, this shift may help prepare agencies for greater human-machine collaboration in the future and the opportunity to reinvigorate the workforce through upskilling and reskilling. Technology doesn’t replace collaboration but enables it. Tools such as organisational network analysis studies the structure of social relationships in a group to uncover informal connections between people. This reveals pathways of collaboration and throws light on how work gets done and who is driving value, where collaboration is faltering, where talent and expertise could be better leveraged and so on. This can help leaders identify challenges and lead to actions that ensure the continued well-being and productive engagement of the workforce.
To help state agencies address work backlogs and relieve overworked staff, Louisiana’s Office of Technology Services has added robotic process automation (RPA) to its portfolio of services. For example, it has given one agency three RPA solutions to help process forms received from the public. A bot processes the majority of forms and when it finds one it can’t complete, it passes it along to a human employee for troubleshooting. This approach has reduced the time needed to complete some tasks by as much as 70%. 13
The US Veterans Benefits Administration is using systems enabled with artificial intelligence (AI) to sort claims that arrive via post, fax and digital sources, rather than leaving that task to human employees. This has cut the time it takes to sort claims from 10 days to half a day. 14
For the health and safety of employees during the pandemic, many processes that organisations used to perform entirely offline have moved online to support employees who work remotely.
Hiring. While continuing its use of third-party job boards to recruit employees, the US Department of Homeland Security has developed a series of recruitment webinars to help it reach more candidates at colleges and universities, and to replace in-person events for recruiting and hiring. 15
Training/learning. The Food Safety and Inspection Service at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is using virtual reality (VR) to deliver classes in veterinary public health. The courses feature experiences such as a tour of an inspector’s work setting in a 360-degree, interactive VR environment. USDA also lets potential hires experience slaughterhouse inspection through a VR simulation, helping them better understand what the job entails. 16
Performance management. At the US Environmental Protection Agency, managers in the Office of Continuous Improvement address performance management in the virtual workplace by conducting weekly “huddles” with staff and teams. These 15-minute flash meetings give teams a chance to take their eyes off their long to-do lists and focus on the big picture. 17
To understand which tasks the workforce is performing better, worse, or the same as it was before virtualisation, across jobs, teams and functions, an organisation requires data. This data needs to come from leaders, managers and teams.
What challenges are employees facing? What’s better and worse about working virtually? Which tasks are truly mission-critical? How can the work be deconstructed to gain a granular understanding of those truly mission-critical activities? We are now living in unexplored territory. To negotiate that terrain, we first need to collect accurate, experience-based insights from employees on the ground.
That’s what California’s Department of General Services is doing as it tracks the impact of telework since many of its employees started working from home in March 2020. A public dashboard displays key telework metrics, including the number of employees working remotely, changes in commute for those employees and estimated savings due to those changes. The dashboard is part of a larger programme to promote successful teleworking for state agencies and their employees. 18
Norway is collecting data through a series of “pulse” surveys of employees. It also operates a portal for public employers, providing human resources information and advice for managers, with daily updates. 19
COVID-19 has produced a digitally distributed workforce overnight. This dispersed workforce presents managers and leaders with a new challenge: Instead of managing projects, they now need to manage project teams. Many government leaders have adopted new strategies to stay connected with employees and make sure team members have the necessary facilities available where they are. This includes providing hardware such as mobile devices or tech stipends to support remote work or collaboration tools. Cost savings from property can be redeployed towards remote work infrastructure for employees.
For the Australian Public Service, GovTEAMS lets public employees and external partners collaborate across organisations and geographies. It provides remote conferencing and events, messaging, document management and quick web publication, supporting flexible and remote work. More than 30,000 public sector users and 6,200 industry partners have registered to use GovTEAMS. 20 In Dubai, employees in 58 government organisations use a mobile app called Smart Employee to remotely access a variety of HR and procurement services and stay connected with the office at any time, from any location. 21
The US Department of Defense expanded its remote work capabilities through its Commercial Virtual Remote collaboration environment, which facilitates the exchange of low-risk, unclassified data among users. As for classified data, the department is currently conducting pilots and prototyping a classified remote Windows capability to support sensitive telework. 22
Driven by accelerating connectivity, new talent models and cognitive technologies, work is changing. Jobs are being reinvented, creating the “unleashed workforce”—where work is redefined to create new value and meaning for organisations, employees, stakeholders and communities.