The Impact of COVID-19: A Tale of Two Workforces?

The coronavirus has dramatically altered the work environment, in large part by triggering a mass transition to working remotely. Across the nation, including in government, millions of employees are now working remotely full time. Many employers and employees were unprepared for this massive change.

The head of remote for Gitlab, which claims to employ the world’s largest all-remote workforce with employees in 65 countries, characterizes the transition to working remotely as “a process, not a binary switch to be flipped.”

However, COVID-19 forced many government organizations to flip the switch to a remote workforce—sometimes literally overnight. In addition to the obvious technology challenges, the sudden transition affected employees’ psychological well-being, performance and productivity.

To directly assess the impacts of the coronavirus on the public-sector workforce, the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement conducted a national Employee Connection Survey to

  • Help government organizations understand how their employees are faring during this difficult time; and
  • Identify and share lessons learned to help government respond to future workplace challenges.

The survey explored employees’ feelings about, and experiences in, the COVID-19 workplace. We asked for views on communication, tools and resources, as well as overall well-being.

We received 19,550 responses from public sector and nonprofit employees across the nation. About 87 percent of the survey respondents reported working in local government. Another 10 percent worked in state government. The survey results, along with our recommendations, are detailed in Leading Though a Pandemic: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Public-Sector Workforce. You can obtain a copy of the full report by emailing

All respondents were asked to describe in three words how they were feeling about the COVID-19 work environment. Common responses were “tired,” “anxious,” “worried,” “nervous” and “stressed.” These responses came as no surprise. Most of us knew to expect these descriptions; several of us have even experienced the same emotions.

Respondents were also asked to indicate whether they were reporting to their normal work locations (i.e., designated as essential workers) or working remotely. Based on their response to this question, we then asked respondents slightly different questions.

Essential or Remote?

As the first chart shows, more than half of the survey respondents reported they were designated as essential and were still reporting to their work locations.

Chart 1. What Best Describes Your Current Work Situation?

This high percentage of essential workers is noteworthy—and somewhat surprising—given the national attention on employees working remotely. One important takeaway from the survey is that, unlike some private sector companies that have gone fully remote, government will likely never be able to transition completely, or even largely, to a remote workforce. Because of the services government provides, there will always be substantial numbers of public sector employees who continue to report to their worksites, even during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as Chart 2 shows, 30 percent of the essential employees did not know in advance that they would be designated as essential.

Chart 2. Before COVID-19, Did You Expect to Be Designated as Essential?

Essential Employees Less Satisfied

The survey also allowed us to drill down on differences between how essential and remote employees were feeling about their work environment. We found some significant and alarming differences, including that essential employees were less satisfied than remote employees.

For example, essential employees were 21 percentage points less positive about being designated as essential, compared to the employees working remotely.

Chart 3. How Do You Feel About Being Designated Essential or Remote?

Essential workers were also much less likely to agree that their organization did a good job adapting to COVID-19. About 89 percent of remote workers agreed, but more than one in four essential workers disagreed.

Chart 4. Percent of Employees Who Agreed Their Organization Has Done a Good Job Adapting to COVID-19

Essential workers were also significantly less likely than remote workers to agree that they understood their organization’s COVID-19 policies.

Chart 5. I Understand My Organization’s COVID-19 Policies

Communicating effectively is always a challenge. Our survey confirmed this by revealing that essential employees were significantly less satisfied with communications than were employees working remotely. The biggest gap was in communications from leaders. About one-third of essential employees rated communications from leaders as less than helpful.

Chart 6. Recent Communications Have Been Helpful

About 42 percent of essential workers reported that their workloads increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. That compared with 35 percent of remote workers.

Chart 7. My workload has …

What Does It All Mean?

We find it concerning that the more than 10,000 essential government employees who responded to this survey were less satisfied than remote employees with how their organizations adapted to COVID-19, their knowledge of COVID-19 policies and communications from leaders. In addition, more than 40 percent of essential workers reported that their workloads increased.

Most of the nation’s attention has been on how to manage employees who have been forced to suddenly work remotely. This focus is important, including the need to equip managers and supervisors with the tools and skills to manage goals and outcomes, not just time and attendance.

But our findings show that leaders must not forget the millions of essential government workers across the nation who are risking their health and lives to continue providing necessary services. Our survey results are a powerful indicator that essential employees have real concerns about their working environment and workloads, particularly compared to colleagues who are working remotely.

Leaders who fail to address these concerns risk creating two classes of employees. These could be perceived as the haves (remote workers) and the have-nots (essential workers).

To avoid this potentially dangerous situation, leaders need to ensure that essential employees have the information, tools and support they need to succeed—and also stay safe as they put themselves at risk to continue delivering results for the people government serves.