For State and Local, What Back to Work Could Be

Technology and innovation leaders from state and local governments told Techwire the eventual return to their offices as the pandemic eases will almost certainly preserve a significant amount of remote work — and present challenges and opportunities as well.

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A return to the office still isn’t quite imminent even as staffers get their COVID-19 vaccines, but state and local government officials have been hard at work for months envisioning what that future may hold.

Chief information officers and technology leaders at state lottery, health and child support entities, and locally at the city of Long Beach, told Techwire a key attribute for public- and private-sector technologists going forward will likely be flexibility. Among the takeaways:

  • Staffers at the Center for Data Insights and Innovation are still 100 percent remote, but when the return to work happens — potentially around June or July — they and other employees at the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS) will head to offices in the new Clifford L. Allenby Building. (The Center, which officially launched in January, integrates the offices of Innovation, Patient Advocate (OPA) and Health Information Integrity (CalOHII) at CHHS.) When that happens, leaders will survey staff to determine comfort levels for office versus telework, Chaeny Emanavin, director of CHHS’ Office of Innovation, told Techwire. Maintaining the flexibility to let people work in “whichever environment is most productive” will be important, Emanavin said, but so will having the tools and skill sets to blend remote and on-prem staff — and the insight to measure outputs differently based on the types of work that are produced.
    “It’s not the hours you spend in the office, it’s the contributions to projects, it’s the closing of loops, it’s the outcomes of their work and the output of their work,” he said.
  • The prospect of agency employees returning to work presents “a problem and an opportunity” in tech, Emanavin said, with the former being figuring out how to collaborate with people in a variety of locations. “For vendors who can support the mindset, skill set and toolset, the role could be an opportunity to come in and help support good work.” Toolsets could include Kira, Trello and Mural as well as platforms like Zoom. The skill set here would involve “being able to change your collaboration techniques” for mixed locations; and the mindset “goes back to vendors” who can come on board and move with staff.
  • Like other entities, the California State Lottery is working on a policy to address supporting long-term telework “where appropriate,” CIO Jennifer Chan told Techwire. She said support capabilities and operational needs will ultimately drive the levels to which staff can telework. On the IT side, Chan said, officials are looking at establishing criteria for “what we can support department-wide,” including standardizing equipment they can support; criteria and policies on equipment and usage; and determining whether different criteria may be needed for different levels of telework. The Lottery will also need to determine what its IT program’s “own internal needs and criteria are to support teleworking within IT,” the CIO said, calling implementation of a more permanent telework solution “a big lift for all departments.
    “There’s a lot to consider, everything from equipment and support needs, logistics like space needs (e.g., hoteling cubicles versus permanent cubicles), reasonable accommodations, worker’s compensation issues, performance metrics, etc.,” Chan said. “And, of course, evaluating lessons learned from what went well and what didn’t with the rapid move to emergency telework last year will be important considerations, as well.”
  • The California Department of Child Support Services was already doing teleworking, which made transitioning to remote easier during the pandemic. Now, staff are preparing the buildings for a “reduced footprint,” CIO Catherine Lanzaro told Techwire, and “looking at how we can set up our new work space ... .” Key for her, Lanzaro said, will be striking a “balance between teleworking and the hustle and bustle of the business office.”
    “The excitement of being in the office and drawing on the whiteboard and collaborating with each other, because there are a lot of great things about teleworking where we’re not on the roads as much,” Lanzaro said, noting officials realized “very quickly” as the pandemic took hold that staff were getting just as much work done remote — and more in some cases. “But what’s missing is the connection between people.”
  • Having the infrastructure in place for remote work — a necessity in an area with 24/7 systems and staff on call — meant Long Beach’s Technology and Innovation Department (TID) mainly had to work to scale up when the pandemic hit. In mid-March, officials ordered roughly 500 Lenovo devices when they deployed during the following two weeks. Long Beach’s existing telework policy dated at least to the 1990s and required individual permission from the city manager to work from home, CIO Lea Eriksen, TID director, told Techwire. The city is now working on a “long-term telework program,” Eriksen said, adding, “I definitely see a benefit to that working from home, at least a portion of your workweek.”  
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.