Aug 31 2021

Hybrid Work Is Here to Stay for State and Local Agencies, IT Influencers Say

In addition to adopting new technology, IT leaders say that government agencies need to shift their cultures to adapt to hybrid work setups.

As coronavirus cases surge across the country, sone local agencies have returned workers to government offices, but many are still operating on a hybrid model, in which employees only need to be in the office part of the week. 

For many state and local IT leaders, the hybrid model of operating seems to be the path forward. Many agencies have learned during the pandemic that they can be just as productive with employees working remotely as they were in the office. Because of this, as well as ongoing safety concerns around the pandemic, many agencies are opting to maintain a hybrid model for the foreseeable future.

StateTech surveyed some of the IT leaders who appear on our 2021 State and Local Government IT Influencer List to get their insights on hybrid work environments and the cultural changes needed to support them in the long term. 

How Tech Helps Enable Hybrid Work for Government 

States and cities across the country have adopted a patchwork of hybrid approaches, with no one dominant policy prevailing. Texas CIO Amanda Crawford notes that the Texas Department of Information Resources is currently in phase three of its return-to-office strategy, and all employees are required to work in the office at least one day per week. 

“We allow for each team to decide which days of the week best fits their needs,” she says. “We are also monitoring the pandemic and following the guidance of state and federal officials and adjusting our hybrid work setups as necessary.”

In addition to tools like laptops, hotspots and headsets, virtual collaboration tools are essential to Texas’s approach to hybrid work, Crawford says. “DIR also provides unified communication tools for our own agency and our government customers, which enable employees to make and receive their phone calls while not at their government offices,” she adds. 

Texas is also ensuring hybrid work setups are secure and is focusing on endpoint protection tools and multifactor authentication. With remote work, many of the traditional perimeter security tools can and are being bypassed, Crawford says. 

“Endpoint protection becomes a critical tool to protect the agency from intrusion or attack. In addition to technologies, DIR values maintaining a vibrant employee culture through virtual employee events and regular team meetings,” she says. 

In North Carolina, Chief Data Officer John Correllus says the ability of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology to “seamlessly and successfully shift to remote work during the pandemic has provided us confirmational insights on how committed and capable our employees are, regardless of where they sit.” 

MORE FROM STATETECH: How can IT leaders capitalize on a distributed workforce?

NCDIT recently implemented a remote work pilot that allows employees to work remotely full time or on a hybrid schedule. “Collaborative tools are critical to productivity and teamwork at NCDIT,” he says. “The most important tool we have is not technology, but rather human empathy and understanding. We recognize that our staff has gone through a lot during the pandemic, and relying solely on connecting with employees through a technology platform isn’t a replacement for personal check-ins on their well-being.”

Emily Yates, the smart city director of Philadelphia, notes that the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology has realized over the last 18 months “that the staff has been able to sustain, and even improve, critical services while working from home.”

Philadelphia only requires an in-office visit once every two weeks, according to Yates. When the pandemic hit and the city quickly transitioned to working from home, Yates says, it realized it needed laptops rather than desktops. “In addition to quickly having to procure laptops, videoconferencing and Software as Service services were procured to meet the work-from-home needs,” she says. 

Virginia Chief Data Officer Carlos Rivero notes that the newly created Office of Data Governance and Analytics has been 100 percent remote, with one day (the fourth Tuesday of each month) allocated “for in-person convening for team building and governance activities.” 

Rivero says the tools that are essential for his office to operate have included cloud-based messaging (email and chat), document storage and collaboration (with version control), virtual meeting software (including audio, video, screen-share, chat and whiteboard functions), project and task management, remote workstations for complex workloads, and VPN access to back-end infrastructure.

RELATED: How will remote work tools help government agencies recruit talent?

The Cultural Changes Needed for Hybrid Work to Be a Success

It’s not just technologies that need to change inside government offices, our influencers say. Organizational cultures also need to adapt to a new reality and more flexible ways of working. 

Kelly Taylor, director of the Colorado Digital Service, says he was “incredibly impressed” with how Colorado’s Office of Information Technology “led all of the efforts to optimize how folks worked remotely in the midst of the early days of the pandemic,” as well as “how nimble and open everyone, from vendors to agency team members to the Governor’s staff, has been with the collaboration tools, from chat rooms to video meetings.” 

Hybrid work or some type of “new normal” requires “an empathic and inclusive culture,” Taylor says. “In the ‘before times,’ the person on the phone when everyone else is in the room was forgotten,” he says. “Teams need to be intentional, learn from others who succeeded in remote culture and all work together to build great teams in a hybrid environment.”

Virginia’s Rivero notes that it is usually middle managers in public sector organizations who need to change the most, given they operate under human resources, procurement and IT policy constraints. 

“Although remote work may seem logical and practical at the strategic and operational levels, it’s the tactical level of the organization that needs to embrace it the most,” he says. “Unfortunately, many middle-level managers have been accustomed to visually monitoring employee performance through direct experience and have not embraced project and task management principles and tools. The cultural shift that needs to happen is to move from ‘in your face’ performance management to delegation, responsibility and accountability.”

Crawford in Texas says that government agencies should “consider moving away from a standardized approach for all employees and gear the work environment to the position.”

“For some positions, such as constituent-facing roles, there may never be a hybrid work opportunity,” she says. “For other positions, especially those that do not interact with the constituents or legislative bodies, offering hybrid work opportunities allows state agencies to compete with the private sector in recruiting and retaining skilled IT professionals.”

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