COVID-19 a Big Live-Drill for Telework

Ben Brown, NCLM Communications and Multimedia Strategist

It was budget time in Fuquay- Varina, and though the COVID-19 pandemic had shaken up the pace of the world, kinked revenue streams and created all manner of pundit-beloved “new normals,” the public spending plan would still be due for approval by July 1.

Diligent as ever, town hall officials shaped, refined and balanced the draft budget in workshops with 14 department directors and meeting after meeting with the finance staff over a period of about a month and a half.

“And there wasn’t a single meeting where I sat personally in the room with another staff person,” said Adam Mitchell, Fuquay-Varina’s town manager. “Which is the first time that’s ever occurred.”

Instead, they did what so many other local governments have had to get used to lately, in sometimes crash-course fashion – telework: describing work done from outside of the office, often from home, via internet connection, the safer alternative during deadly coronavirus times to working in shared office space, where contagion could occur.

“And to be honest with you,” Mitchell said, “it worked as good or better than when we were sitting physically in the room with one another. That was a surprising outcome for me from this whole process.”

Teleworking is not an invention of the COVID-19 lockdown — it’s been around a long time — but the world is a whole lot more practiced with it as a result. And it may be a forced preview of the future of work.

“There’s a sense that this is a permanent shift,” said Tony McEwen, assistant to the city manager at the City of Wilmington, where many employees are connected from home in adherence to social distancing. McEwen said teleworking shouldn’t fully redefine how local governments do business — “there’s a sense of duty to be somewhere where people can physically get to you, face to face,” he said — but he pointed out the level of comfort that newer generations of employees have with web-based work, and that it’s kept departments running smoothly for his city during the pandemic.

It’s obviously not practical for all employees — a law enforcement officer can’t properly investigate a crime from his or her own living room. But, generally, things are changing.

“Basically, everyone is doing telework now,” Route Fifty quoted of Leslie Scott of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. States have shown an easier time shifting to it, according to research, but municipalities are on the heels.

On April 30, the Washington, D.C.- based Center for State and Local Government Excellence released the findings of a workforce-trends study that found an increase in telework among state and local government employees. “The increase may relate to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that overlapped with this research,” the group said in a press release, noting that it could “change dramatically” going forward.

At Fuquay-Varina, Mitchell’s team went ahead and wrote a policy specific to it — the Pandemic Recovery Plan Telework Policy, laying out measures to minimize risks, reduce exposures and ride on ability to work from home over secure connections that the town’s information technology department enabled on work-issued laptops.

It wasn’t a careless and quick embrace of teleworking, Mitchell noted. His team carefully evaluated whether employees could achieve the duties of their job descriptions adequately from remote locations like home.

“I personally was a bit reluctant and hesitant to want to even discuss the topic of work-from-home prior to COVID,” he said. “But my eyes are open to the fact that it can work, it does work.”

While not all towns are equally equipped, town halls of all staffing sizes have given it a go during the pandemic. About 115 miles south of Fuquay-Varina is the town of Bolton, whose town hall has two fulltime employees, including League Board of Directors Member Jackie Hampton, Bolton’s clerk.

“I know, myself, I couldn’t have pictured in my lifetime that this would be happening,” said of her work-from-home ability. Before, she said, staying home was for the odd sick day; it wasn’t the habitat for government processes.

“To the point where this is the norm and not the exception has been eye-opening,” Hampton said.

The possibilities are encouraging there. They’re accomplishing their work. But it’s not a perfect system.

“In our area, being as rural as it is, your signal is liable to go out at any minute,” Hampton noted.

That needs to change, and the COVID-19 teleworking live-drill is yet another demonstration of how important it will be to have reliable broadband internet across the state, said William Pitt, the League’s outgoing president and council member at the City of Washington. During his presidency and prior, he’s been vocal about policy changes needed to bring modern-speed connections to all sorts of towns, as many parts of the state are unserved.

“The internet is no longer a luxury…. It is now a necessity,” Pitt said.

Teleworking is “very practical” for the City of Washington amid the coronavirus, he said. “It’s been pretty seamless. You really couldn’t tell that our finance division had even felt a bump.”

Pitt said in the longrun it may lead to new flextime policies for municipal employees, “because if you can do it seamlessly at home, there are employees that need time at home for childcare or elder care,” among other things.

Mitchell offered similar observations at Fuquay-Varina. That “could be a good recruitment and retention tool to our workforce. In a time period where there is so much negative related to COVID-19, this is potentially a positive that has come from it.”