Some officials say government's mobile work culture might stick

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Some state and local government IT officials who’ve had to rapidly transition their organizations to remote work said they think the changes to their work environments could persist after their states lift the stay-at-home orders brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, Chief Information Officer Brent Messer told StateScoop his city has been ready for remote work since 2017, when it shut down its physical data centers and invested heavily in virtualized systems and cloud-based software, with an emphasis on mobile access.

“We’ve had work-from-home policies for the last two years anyway so this is kind of like business as usual for us. We were well prepared for this, because when it hit, within two days, boom, everybody’s mobile,” Messer said. “If I don’t have my laptop, I still have my phone and I can connect to every piece of software we need to conduct business in the city, our [enterprise resource planning] system, everything.”

While some personnel, like police officers, can’t work remotely, Messer said he thinks the shift to remote work could become more common for workers now that managers who’d previously doubted it have experienced it.

“I love it and my staff who normally think not to do it are starting to realize, ‘hey, this is kind of nice, I don’t have to interact with people face to face.’ Especially the introverts, it’s good for them,” he said.

In Chattanooga, Messer said there have been conversations about renovating buildings for city staff, but he said the city should view this as an opportunity to cut costs.

“I’m definitely talking about reducing my overhead,” he said. “They want to cut budgets and stuff and I’m like, great, as soon as our contract’s up for our building, don’t renew it. I’ll just send everybody home.”

‘Just operate as usual’

Jonathan Feldman, CIO of Asheville, North Carolina, told StateScoop that while remote work should become more common in local government after the pandemic settles, he doesn’t think it will necessarily shake out that way.

“What I think will happen is there are toxic micromanagers out there that are going to want to have these people under their thumb again and they’re going to come up with all kinds of bullshit reasons why they have to return to work,” Feldman said.

Asheville has used Google’s suite of business tools since 2017, which he said prepared the city to move its employees to remote work last month.

“All we had to tell people was ‘just operate as usual. Just bring your laptop home,’ which was great,” he said. “Except for some legacy applications, we didn’t have to spin up for remote the way other organizations were. Because other organizations didn’t even have teleconferencing. I mean, they had a bridge line or they had Cisco Meet-Me, and I won’t name the municipalities, but I’ve heard a couple stories of [systems] getting slammed.”

And when Asheville rushed to stand up a COVID-19 hotline on March 27, the city resisted the temptation to slip into old practices and build an on-premise solution. The city instead partnered with surrounding Buncombe County to hire Ringfree, a local phone services company, to open a new cloud-based call center, which launched just a few days later on March 31.

“It’s not just having stuff in place but having that mindset in place where people don’t try to solve the problem in the way we would have back in 1999,” Feldman said.

‘We need to be flexible’

Among state governments, too, readiness for remote work has varied. Michigan CIO Brom Stibitz said he thinks his state was ready thanks to an emphasis that his agency places on agility.

“We have moved the entire state, 50,000 employees,” Stibitz said, noting that 27,000 of those employees are now working remotely. “They’re all on [Microsoft] Office 365. That makes a huge difference to just be able to flip the switch quickly and send people home. Another thing is we have pretty extensive use of telework.”

Some Michigan agencies were already accustomed to remote work, with tools like virtual private networks and video conferencing already online for some workers, he said. When officials saw the pandemic coming, Stibitz said they boosted the number of VPN licenses, scoured municipal stores for hundreds of laptops and contacted AT&T, CenturyLink and Comcast to increase the bandwidth of the state’s internal network from 8 gigabits per second to 20 Gbps.

“We know now that had we stayed at 8 gigs, we would have had serious problems, but with 20 we’re sailing, we’re all green,” he said. “Everything’s good.”

In just a few weeks, Stibitz said he’s watched as the move to mobile work has kicked off cultural changes throughout the state government, some of which he suspects could persist.

“I think there will be a lasting cultural change based on this experience,” he said.

The barrier to remote work was always more psychological than technological, several CIOs told StateScoop.

“I think what it’s going to come down to is ultimately what are employers comfortable with?” Stibitz said. “It’s not IT that’s the barrier usually. It’s the learning and the culture and what people are comfortable with that’s going to drive how much something gets adopted. I don’t expect that two months from now 27,000 people [in Michigan] will continue to work from home, but I expect you will start to see more flexibility or more adoption at least some days of the week.”

Feldman, Asheville’s CIO, said government’s adoption of remote work will depend on whether administrators can keep an open mind.

“If this was an issue with technology, we’d already be doing it,” Feldman said. “So we’re going to keep leasing buildings and keep building $24 million parking decks, but not if we’re smart. Why do we have to build more municipal buildings? Why? We don’t have to. We really don’t have to.”

This story was updated to correct an error regarding Asheville’s call center, which is not a technical help desk, but a COVID-19 hotline.

This story is part of StateScoop & EdScoop’s Special Report on Remote Workforce.

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coronavirus, COVID-19, digital transformation, remote work, remote workforce
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