Public Sector Telework Trends During the Coronavirus Pandemic

State-ordered shutdowns to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus infections forced public sector organizations to adapt quickly to allowing many employees to work from home—most for the first time. Historically, public sector organizations have trailed private organizations in providing flexible workplace benefits. That made the transition for local, state and federal government agencies challenging in some ways.

More positively, the massive shift propelled some organizations without a telework system in place to develop one. Additionally, documented benefits of telework have emerged at public sector organizations.

During the first peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States during April 2020, IPMA-HR invited 6,929 individual members to complete a COVID-19 Response Survey. As part of this effort to gauge how public sector human resources professionals were adapting to newly imposed restrictions on workers and workplaces, the survey explored the handling of office closures and the rapid switch to telework.

A total of 571 IPMA-HR members submitted responses, yielding a response rate of 8.24 percent. Responses came from members in local government (71 percent), state government (10 percent), federal government (2 percent), special districts (10 percent) and educational organizations (2 percent). This data is a snapshot of how the membership stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 Response Survey also explored furloughs and layoffs, hazard pay, expanded family and medical leave practices, recruitment and reopening plans at public sector organizations. Those results will be shared as part of the online events being offered in lieu of the in-person 2020 Annual Conference. Visit on.ipma-hr.org/itc2020 to learn more.

Policies and Practices Pre- and Post-April 2020

The 2019 National Compensation Survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that 7 percent of private sector workers had access to a flexible workplace benefit. Defined as being permitted to work an agreed-upon portion of one’s schedule at home or at some other approved location other than the employer’s office, flexible workplace benefits were then available to just 4 percent of state and local government workers.

The overall percentages included jobs for which teleworking is difficult or impossible to arrange, such as retail, construction and public safety. Looking at only those jobs classified as management, business and financial—which encompass HR manager and specialist positions—many more private sector workers (24 percent) had access to a flexible workplace benefit than did their peers in state and local government (5 percent).

As expected, and as shown in the accompanying infographic, a large majority (70 percent) of public sector HR professionals who responded to IPMA-HR’s April 2020 survey reported that their organization did not have an established and functioning telework program when the pandemic struck. Among the 30 percent (n=211) of respondents whose organizations did have a telework program in place, an average of 16 percent of their workforce was already teleworking in some capacity. After office closures began, the percentage of teleworkers at organizations that already had a program went up to 63 percent. This represented an increase of 294 percent in teleworking very shortly after the pandemic took hold.

A much biggest jump was seen at organizations that did not have established telework programs. From this group, survey participants reported that an average of 1 percent of their workforce were teleworking before the pandemic. Their share of remote workers grew to 41 percent during April 2020, representing an increase of 4,000 percent.

Problems and Payoffs

The big changes did not come without complications. In addition to many organizations needing to create guidelines and structures to support telework, about 60 percent of IPMA-HR members reported experiencing technical issues. Almost half of respondents reported having a hard time balancing work-life needs, and 41 percent felt that social isolation was a problem. Other challenges created or exacerbated by the switch to remote work were not having access to materials needed to complete work assignments (27 percent) and being away from peers.

Despite encountering such issues, 71 percent of the IPMA-HR members who responded to this survey indicated that they considered having flexibility over their schedule a benefit of teleworking. Sixty-three percent also indicated that teleworking enabled them to save time and resources on commuting (63 percent), and 48 percent believed they were able to strike a better work-life balance. Against respondents citing social isolation as a challenge, 36 percent selected having fewer distractions as one of the benefits of teleworking.

These findings are in line with other research into the benefits of telework. For instance, the 2018 Federal Work-Life Survey Governmentwide Report notes that 76 percent of those who were teleworking in some capacity felt an increased desire to stay at their agency, 72 percent reported improved performance, 83 percent felt higher morale, 68 percent reported improved health, and 77 percent believed teleworking helped them manage stress.

Will Telework Continue?

Some of the most important questions for HR throughout the pandemic have been when and how employees who started teleworking this spring could return to the office. IPMA-HR asked members how they expected their organizations to handle telework after their jurisdictions reopen.

Sixty-nine percent of the respondents at public sector organizations that had established telework policies reported plans to continue allowing more teleworking even after reopening their offices. The intention to stick with teleworking was lower, at 45 percent, among survey respondents whose organizations lacked telework programs prior to the coronavirus pandemic. —N