Jun 07 2022

State and Local Agencies Keep Pandemic Workplace Lessons in Focus

Adaptability was key to success for government offices, and now they are striving to build on achievements attained while working from home.

Balance, collaboration and flexibility are the dominant themes for the government workplaces of the future, according to state and local officials who spoke last month at the Adobe Experience Makers Government Forum in Washington, D.C. 

The panelists from Hennepin County, Minn., and the state of Virginia were optimistic about their workforces, but also forthcoming about the challenges experienced during the pandemic.

“I’ve really seen a change in mindset, in that everything doesn’t have to be perfectly planned out, and we’re more collaborative in finding a solution to an issue and moving on it,” said Melinda Stewart, executive director of digital innovation and technology for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA).

MORE FROM STATETECH: Explore how Virginia's VITA supports AI services for other state agencies.

Hennepin County Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Rossman and CIO Glen Gilbertson discussed what it took to move roughly 6,500 people to a remote work environment. 

“We learned so much within 72 hours, including just how ready we were for some aspects of telework and some areas where there were gaps,” said Rossman.

Gilbertson explained that the Hennepin County administration had been focusing on creating a more mobile workforce for several years, providing a solid starting point for supporting remote work.

“The administration constantly wants the county to be out in the community working with our residents, so we had tools in place, basically laptops and VPN,” he said. “We had migrated to the cloud already for most of our systems and we were using all the Microsoft tools.”

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Remote Teams Gained Collaboration Confidence with Quick Wins

Although the core remote work capabilities were functional, Hennepin County struggled to get additional equipment to employees’ homes. Gilbertson’s department worked together with vendors to distribute hardware and also worked with Rossman’s HR team to solicit worker feedback and develop solutions.

“We wanted our staff to be agile and meet the residents’ needs,” Gilbertson continued. “Even now, we’re constantly asking for feedback. Is this thing working for you? Or should we try something different?”

In the thick of the pandemic, Stewart and her team at VITA decided to temporarily scrap long-term plans and focus on quick wins.

“Everybody was struggling with how are we going to accomplish this?’” said Stewart. “So ‘quick wins’ suddenly became our motto. What do we have? What can we quickly roll out?”

Stewart described an example.

“We had SharePoint, Teams and Power BI, but none of them had been fully vetted,” she said. “So, we came up with three-week challenges. We’d say, ‘We need a dashboard for X, Y, Z. The data’s coming from seven different systems. Figure out how you might implement this and come back to us.’ That way, the organization was able to shift from project work to quick wins using the tools we had. After they shared it with their teammates and then the business, all of a sudden there was confidence that we could implement things quickly.”

DIVE DEEPER: What is Microsoft Azure Attestation and how can it help government security?

County Incorporated Work-From-Home Lessons into Practice

The time at home gave both government offices time to develop some best practices, which they plan to continue in the foreseeable future. Stewart and her team saw a continuation of online collaboration and quick rollouts, a skill learned during the pandemic.

Both government teams continue to use communication tools to maintain personal connections and keep morale high. Hennepin County uses Teams along with a variety of other video chat tools.

“During the pandemic, we used communication tools for simple things like a quick check-in or team meetings in the middle of the day,” Rossman said. “People who worked early shifts or late shifts, they could quickly log on, get a little bonding going on and a little morale boost because it was tough, and we didn’t want people to be isolated during COVID. Now, as people are coming back in, many locations are much more collaborative. We’re finding that the tools are definitely working, and I can see them continuing through the future.”

Workplace flexibility has also been a key factor for employee retention.

“We learned a lot during the pandemic about work-life balance, and obviously attracting talent is really important,” VITA’s Stewart said. “We’re looking at different strategies to maintain that flexibility to allow people to still care for their children. The top performers have done a great job, and we want them to continue that way.”

Rossman agreed.

“The call to action is that you need to flex with your employees, or your best talent will not stay with you, hands down,” he said. “Let’s stake my career on that one. So, think proactively and figure out how you can do that.”

Delmaine Donson/ Getty Images

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