What local governments should consider about working from home, post COVID-19

In the wake of widespread social distancing orders, many critical government tasks were transitioned online, but should this continue as restrictions are lifted?


Before the global pandemic struck, remote work was accelerating in the U.S. In fact, remote working trends tripled in the past 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve. While government workers have historically been excluded from the growing trend, in the face of COVID-19, the situation changed.

Local governments everywhere made fast decisions about work-from-home business models, and which workers could take advantage of a remote setup.

Now, as local government workers are becoming accustomed to greater flexibility (and as the threat for a second wave of COVID-19 looms), your agency may be wondering if a broader, more permanent remote policy makes sense.

Many local governments have made the switch to online meetings in the post-pandemic world. Image: Unsplash
Many local governments have made the switch to online meetings in the post-pandemic world. Image: Unsplash

As you weigh the decision, it’s critical for local governments to weigh the following considerations and opportunities when bringing workers back into municipal buildings, or loosening work-from-home options permanently.

#1 Updating ad hoc policies

Many local government agencies don’t have firm digital policies. In fact, many policies that regulate how local governments should function were written pre-internet. With an abrupt switch to a remote workforce, local governments were forced to solve logistical and procedural IT problems on the fly, with little guidance.

For example, Eric Grossman the County Assessor at Tippecanoe County Government says his department struggled with:

  • Not enough modern laptops
  • Primitive call forwarding options
  • Lack of IT permissions for non-exempt employees to work remotely
  • Accessing consistent VPNs, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and video teleconference software

With pressure to make remote work happen in the midst of COVID-19, many IT departments relied on ad hoc digital policies developed with limited resources. While this ‘frankenstack’ approach may be suitable as a Band-Aid solution, a more thoughtful approach is necessary for long-term success.

Before considering a true remote working environment, reassess what’s necessary to make a fully remote staff possible, and write down specific processes.

  • Who is in charge of technology costs, should they become necessary for an employee to do their job?
  • Can you streamline tools for the team to communicate and collaborate effectively?
  • How will your team organize and share documents and information securely?
  • Is there a way to best track productivity, progress on projects and measure results?

#2 Vetting vendors to minimize cybersecurity threats

For years cybercriminals have targeted organizations with security weaknesses and old operating systems. Municipal government has historically ranked as a top victim. According to CNN, in the first 10 months of 2019, there were more than 140 attacks targeting public state and local governments and health care providers.

With COVID-19, and the push for a remote workforce, the vulnerabilities at local agencies have increased:

  • Cyber defences lowered with a shift of focus to the health crisis
  • More organizations turned to third-party apps for remote working, without understanding the risks

Zoom, a go-to video conferencing tool during the COVID-19 disruption, has been repeatedly outed as a flawed platform. Security weaknesses like ‘zoom bombing’ and unauthorized recording have caused a myriad of security issues for businesses.

Zoom’s CEO, Eric S. Yuan, wrote a public apology for the platform’s shortcomings, "We recognize that we have fallen short of the community's — and our own — privacy and security expectations."

Ensuring government workers can continue to work remotely, with limited cybersecurity concerns, is a pressing topic. In addition to offering employee training to spot phishing scams and teaching best practices like using a VPN, local government IT departments will also need to place an added emphasis on vetting third-party vendors.

#3 Changing health standards

In early April, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested Americans should never shake hands again. Grocery stores across the states are adding plexiglass shields between customers and cashiers. And now, businesses in every sector are brainstorming ways to transform the health standards in their own offices to limit the spread of COVID-19 or other health issues that could arise in the future.

For local government agencies that expect to return to ‘business as usual’, it’s essential to consider what updated health standards you’ll be following, especially with the scare of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting the states in the fall. Consider if certain employees and constituents are safer at home.

#4 Protecting revenue

Two professors from Old Dominion University, Ron Carlee and Robert McNab, estimate that local governments in Virginia are losing at least $60 million a month as social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Carlee and McNab’s research identifies five local taxes that are most vulnerable in the event of crisis:

  • Sales and use
  • Business and franchise license
  • Hotel and motel
  • Restaurant and food
  • Admissions

To maximize and protect revenue, despite a national shutdown, local governments need to get creative.

For example, is it possible to digitize revenue-generating forms, like building permits, or business licenses so revenue can trickle in, regardless of if the doors of government are open?

Whether workers come back post COVID-19 or not, new technology and process changes should be considered to help ward off lost revenue, improve processes, and provide a lifeline in the event a crisis of this magnitude occurs again.

Opportunities with a remote workforce

Not all change has to be intimidating or complex. In fact, there are a number of silver linings we can take from these unprecedented times. Local governments that allow remote working can take advantage of opportunities, such as:

#5 Increasing inclusion

Allowing a remote workforce could encourage more inclusiveness and diversity into your local department.

For example, roughly 31% of women who took a career break after having kids said they didn’t want to, but had to because of a lack of employer flexibility, according to a 2019 FlexJobs survey. And, over half (56%) tried to negotiate flexible work arrangements with their employers, but only 32% were successful.

A more flexible work culture, where remote opportunities abound, could create more equality in the workplace, allowing for more representation inside local government agencies.

#6 Changing core infrastructure

A push for remote working within the government sector could expedite legislation for broadband infrastructure.

A recent article about COVID-19 written by CNBC quotes Kathryn de Wit, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts' broadband research initiative

“We’re seeing local, federal and state leaders step up with these temporary solutions like putting Wi-Fi on buses and [giving] out hotspots,” she says. “Those are good temporary solutions and absolutely needed, but broadband is infrastructure. It takes time and resources to build. If we want to make sure that every American can work, socialize and learn from home, then we need to start having a discussion about what a long-term solution actually looks like.”

Through shifts in operations and delivery, local governments can help re-engage the economy and create more inclusion in the workplace by digitally connecting rural and remote constituents.

The future of workplace structure is yet to be seen. What is your city or agency doing in anticipating a second wave of COVID-19, or to promote workplace protections in the event of a future crisis? We’d love to hear from you at editor@effiicentgov.com.

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