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States Craft Remote Work Policies That Work

By Selena Saucedo | Oct. 16, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

The pandemic has pushed alternative work arrangements, including telework, to the forefront for employers. Like numerous private and public sector workplaces, many state legislatures required legislative staff to work remotely this spring. While some staff have since returned to their capitols, and some never left, others continue to telecommute. The 80 staff from 36 legislatures who responded to a recent informal NCSL survey fell into three general groups: One-third said they continue to telework, another third said they’re back in the office and the final third said they split time between home and the office.

Legislative staff directors and human resources staff are working hard to create and refine remote-work policies and to craft new, innovative ways for staff to get their jobs done from afar—without impeding the legislative process.

Making Accommodations

The Oregon Capitol, for example, closed in March, yet IT staff, custodians, bill drafters and committee staff made accommodations that allowed most legislative employees to work safely from home. Although Oregon had a telework policy in place for most employees, adjustments were made to account for pandemic-related realities. One significant change allows employees to have their children at home while working remotely.

As the fall progresses, most of Utah’s legislative staff continue to work from home, as they have done for the past several months. With no date set to return to the office, they continue to successfully staff special sessions and committee meetings virtually. Before early March, Utah’s staff offices had telework policies and IT systems in place, but employees were telecommuting on a much smaller scale, says Rebecca Smyrniotopoulos, senior human resources generalist in the Office of Legislative Services.

Many legislative jobs can be done remotely if employees have proper equipment.

Only minor modifications to these policies were needed when the virus hit and teleworking became the norm, according to Debbie Cragun, an administrator in the same office.

Many legislative jobs can be done remotely if employees have proper equipment and strong communication from their supervisors regarding performance expectations. Teleworking can provide more flexibility for parents, lessening the stress involved in juggling work demands and children’s school closures.

Cragun says that, before the coronavirus, managers tended to say employees’ physical presence in the office was required. Typically, managers wanted to see people working and felt that teams needed to be together to build relationships. But the tremendous success of teleworking during the pandemic has cast doubt on these assumptions. Managers are now having conversations about what really needs to be done in the office, and they’ve been creative about how work can be performed remotely.

No Single Best Approach

One size doesn’t necessarily fit all, however. Utah Auditor General Kade Minchey says that some positions, like auditing, are difficult to do effectively while teleworking. Performance auditing, for example, requires interviews and interactions with employees of the audited entity to gather needed documentation. He offers these suggestions: 

  • Conduct initial interviews in person, 6 feet apart with masks on, and use video calls to do follow-ups, if needed.
  • Make lots of video and phone calls to stay engaged and connected. Maintain human interaction and avoid retreating into spreadsheets and documents.
  • Take safety precautions if you must physically inspect a facility or business, observe work being done or connect with an agency.

In Washington, the first state to get hit by the coronavirus, House and Senate staff continue to follow a temporary telework policy developed this year. Previously, a limited, informal telework option had to be approved each interim. It was subject to supervisor approval and allowed for only one day of remote work a week. With the temporary policy in place for a few months, many legislative employees have reported satisfaction about working from home, says Allison Hellberg, the Washington Senate human resources officer.

Specifically, employees say they enjoy not having to commute, feel safer if they have underlying medical conditions and appreciate having the flexibility to manage caretaking responsibilities for elderly relatives and children.

Right Equipment Essential

Washington’s transition to teleworking benefited from previous investments in laptops, virtual private network systems and legislature-issued cellphones. The Senate is now working to relax some of its requirements related to dependent care.

It is important to make allowances for staff who choose to return to the office because they don’t have a suitable setup at home or they have specific projects or tasks that need to be completed on site, Hellberg says. To be safe, Washington is allowing only a few employees to work from their offices.

“The technology piece is key to making it all work,” Hellberg says. “For the vast majority of our employees, they have been able to do their interim work at home with no problem.” Plans for next session, she says, are still developing.

Although Oregon has made no final decisions about telework for next year’s session, staff leaders are considering many variables. Susan Hoeye, Oregon’s senior HR policy and training consultant, offers the following tips when creating or updating a telework policy.

  • Give managers the responsibility of determining which staff are essential to maintaining operations.
  • Ensure that you have enough IT staff and equipment to support those working from home.
  • Order enough personal protective equipment and have a custodial protocol in place so members and staff feel—and are—safe.
  • Develop a recruitment and onboarding process for new employees who may need to work remotely for the first months of their career, ensuring they feel like they are part of the team.
  • Make sure you have someone, or a team, working across chambers or offices on session strategy.

Selena Saucedo is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.

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