State employees should keep working from home even as California reopens from its yearlong coronavirus restrictions, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration directed Tuesday.

Newsom told reporters the state will fully reopen June 15 if it still has enough vaccines to meet demand and hospitalizations are low. That would include a return to office work for private employers.

Eraina Ortega, the director of the state’s Human Resources Department, sent out an email around the same time with guidance for state department directors that reiterated state government’s commitment to telecommuting.

“The administration’s direction continues to be that we aim to keep employees eligible for telework on a telework schedule,” Ortega said in the email.

One of state workers’ most common questions — whether the state will reimburse their phone and Internet expenses for remote work — remains unanswered. The email says the administration is negotiating with unions over the expenses and anticipates reaching agreements “later this spring.”

As recently as January, the administration told department directors that 75 percent of state workers who can telework should do so. Most of the state’s 230,000 employees can work remotely, but many employed at state prisons, hospitals and other facilities cannot.

Ortega’s latest guidance says each department “needs to assess the appropriate level of telework that it will maintain, based on operational needs and employee safety,” and restates the administration’s stated goal of making telework a permanent part of state employment.

“You should be thinking now about what kind of work culture you want to establish in the near future,” the email directs. “Many employees will want to continue to telework, although some will want to work remotely only part time.”

The email directs employers to consider hybrid offices or hoteling strategies, in which workers schedule desk time.

It encourages employers to incorporate broader changes such as “providing more flexibility for employees, reaching out to a larger geographic area for job candidates, consolidating your real estate footprint and reducing carbon emissions,” the email says.

Analyses going back to the late 1980s have suggested that telework for state employees could reduce traffic and air pollution in Sacramento while increasing productivity among employees, but a stubborn “butts in the chairs” culture kept it from becoming a reality.

Newsom said early in the coronavirus pandemic that he planned to make telework a permanent option for state employees, and he ordered department directors in November to incorporate savings from remote work in proposals for mandatory across-the-board spending reductions of 5 percent.

Those spending reduction plans, which department leaders had to submit by the end of February, are being finalized, according to the Finance Department.

The full text of Ortega’s email is below:

Dear Colleagues,

With vaccinations increasing and infection rates declining, state employees are starting to ask when they can come back to the office. Keeping health and safety at the forefront, the Administration’s direction continues to be that we aim to keep employees eligible for telework on a telework schedule. Each department needs to assess the appropriate level of telework that it will maintain, based on operational needs and employee safety. Please continue to refer to the December 18, 2020 CalHR guidance on the Emergency Temporary Standards from Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA).

The Administration continues to support telework as a long-term strategy to decrease office space, allow more flexibility for employees, and provide resiliency in the case of future emergencies that may require people to work outside the office. You should be thinking now about what kind of work culture you want to establish in the near future. Many employees will want to continue to telework, although some will want to work remotely only part-time, so it’s important to consider hybrid offices, and what changes might be needed to manage a hybrid workplace, such as a hoteling strategy or how to improve communication with a distributed staff and institutionalize ways to collaborate more effectively. It is important for departments to think about how we can effectively and fairly manage staff, regardless of where they work.

Telework is going to be a permanent part of our work lives going forward. It is up to us to capture the broader, longer-term benefits of integrating telework into the way we do our business. You might consider how to capture these benefits in terms of providing more flexibility for employees, reaching out to a larger geographic area for job candidates, consolidating your real estate footprint and reducing carbon emissions. The Telework Dashboard on telework.govops.ca.gov provides an idea of how profound these opportunities might be, if we take them. Additionally, we plan to convene leaders across our state departments and agencies in a virtual session to share their experience in planning and implementing these changes.

CalHR offers training that can help, and more training and tools are available on telework.govops.ca.gov. The Government Operations Agency, with CalHR and the Department of General Services have formed a working group of executives and senior managers to develop recommendations on what changes will be required to sustain a flexible, hybrid model over the long term.

Many of you have asked about the status of the draft Telework Policy. It still is in the process of negotiations with the state’s bargaining units. We don’t expect this process to be completed until later this Spring. In the meantime, the emergency telework policy continues to be in effect. More information is available on telework.govops.ca.gov.

If you have not conducted an employee engagement survey or are not currently doing “pulse” surveys, please consider getting some feedback from your employees about their telework experience. This will help you make decisions going forward. In conducting employee surveys, work closely with your labor relations advisors to ensure compliance with labor contracts and rules. We also plan to introduce more telework training in the near future for supervisors and managers. I’ll be in touch again to let you know about those opportunities.

Thank you.

Eraina Ortega, Director

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.