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For Many Government Offices, Reopening Won't Be Business As Usual

When the pandemic started, it didn't take long for government agencies to get on board with the work-from-home initiative, sending people home to telecommute. Like most businesses, it took a few weeks to sort out the details, but it became business as usual soon enough. At its peak, state and federal government employees working from home rose to 65 percent—a 491 percent jump from the norm.

Now that the worst seems to be behind us, agencies at all levels of government are rethinking what the future of work looks like. At the federal level, no overall decision has been made, leaving it up to individual agencies and departments. Many state governments, however, are working on plans to execute across their specific jurisdictions.

In every case, though, the public sector workforce will look and act differently than it did before the pandemic. Few agencies are likely to ever require all personnel to be physically present in the office at all times because they've made the discovery that allowing employees to work remotely can pay off in ways they didn't expect.

Not only does it boost employee happiness—a huge benefit in itself—it also gives agencies the opportunity to consider expanding their hiring pool. Instead of limiting potential recruits to those in a specific geographic area, for example, agencies can consider hiring the best candidate for the job, no matter where that candidate may live.

To prepare for this new reality of government employment, agencies need to think about how they can keep employees safe in the office and productive at home. Here are some things to consider as you plan for the public sector's post-pandemic workforce.

Adapting open agency offices for peace of mind

Instead of going into the office every day, employees are likely to split their time between the office setting and working from home. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), more than half of employees would prefer to work remotely at least three days per week after the pandemic is over. These changes mean that the office environment will look different from pre-pandemic times, and new safety processes and procedures must be put in place.

Offices will adopt a much greater emphasis on worker health and safety—not only increasing social distance, but ensuring that surfaces are sanitized and that pandemic management supplies like sanitizers, masks and thermometers are readily available. This may require installing sanitation stations and portable handwashing stations as well as retrofitting bathrooms, breakrooms, and other common areas with touchless devices (like faucets) and upgraded ventilation systems.

Although open offices have been the norm for the last part of the decade, they simply won't work in an era where safety comes first. Gone are the days of “hoteling,” where employees can claim any empty desk on the days they come into the office. Instead, permanent assignments are necessary to reduce the exchange of germs, and open spaces need to become closed again. This may require new floor plans, office partitions and room dividers, desktop dividers and partitions, and antimicrobial tables in agency offices.

These changes can give government employees more peace of mind for the days when they leave their home offices.

Making your home office efficient and safe for the long term

A recent survey found that about 69 percent of respondents at public sector organizations with established telework policies plan to continue allowing more telework even after offices are reopened. With remote work becoming more and more part of the norm, agencies need to plan to not only keep employees safe at the office—but also at home.

Long-term remote employees can no longer make do with what they cobbled together during the early days of the pandemic. Employees who will be working from home on a permanent basis need more effective setups. Maintaining the same level of productivity from a home office requires having the right furniture and accessories to repurpose the space and support long days at work.

An effective work-from-home setup may include a space-efficient desk; a comfortable, ergonomic-friendly chair; task lighting to help the eyes from strain; bookcases or displays to help keep the space organized; and general office supplies. But in addition to these items, a successful home office requires support from the agency itself.

While moral support and encouragement are always helpful, a tangible helping hand can make a big difference.For example, the city government of King County gave employees $1,000 to help them design their own home offices in 2020 and provided in-depth training materials to set up their employees for success.

If it's feasible, agencies may consider offering special perks like childcare subsidies, wellness programs, and lunch credits to help employees remain even more productive and engaged while working from home offices.

A slow but steady shift to a new way of working

Agencies must prepare employees for this new way of working through solidifying and communicating office- and home-based working processes. It's also necessary to offer training so employees can feel comfortable in their new environments and know what is expected of them as their time in the office vs. home fluctuates.

Individual offices may get broader support for these universal changes in the coming months. Public sector agencies in Georgia, for example, are working with state human resources officials to rewrite the definition of flexible work into future job descriptions so there is no question about how often or when an employee must work in the office vs. their own home. It can help both agencies and employees get the clarity they need around work-from-home boundaries.

Over time, the public sector will adapt and become more comfortable with doing business differently. Along the way, both will learn what works and what doesn't, and make necessary adjustments as they move forward. The result? Efficiency, lower costs, higher employee satisfaction, and—most importantly—a safer working environment.

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