California Updates Telework Policy Amid Crisis

Published On: October 12, 2021

For the first time in more than 10 years, California has updated its telework policy for state employees.  The Government Operations Agency posted the new policy on its website last week.

Advocates say the new policy reflects the realization that enabling remote work allows for better response to disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, enhances workforce diversity and improves work-life balance for employees, among other benefits, ranging from the health of the environment to reduced operational costs.

“COVID showed us that short-term is not the same as long-term disaster planning,” said John O’Duinn, a telework expert and strategist with Lafayette-based CivicActions and hired by the state to help update the policy. “When you close the office for 18 months, people expect government services to keep working even if a human can’t get into a government building. To do that you need a policy that says this is a standard way of working for the organization, not just a perk for some.”

The update also considers the fact that the workforce has changed, with millennials dominating the ranks, followed by Gen Zers, who are accustomed to using digital technologies and believe there is no such thing as a job for life. O’Duinn, author of “Distributed Teams, the Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart”, said it also signals a move from outdated notions that only highly trusted, senior-level workers are allowed to work remotely or that remote work is associated with low productivity.

The policy assumes managers will shift their focus from counting “butts in seats” to measuring results that matter and that can be realized with telework arrangements and distributed teams of employees. O’Duinn cited the shutdown of DMV offices during the pandemic and the department’s shift to enable the public to do most DMV business online.

“People found a way to keep doing the work to keep the wheels of government turning,” he said.

State departments, agencies and other offices have one year to adapt the new telework framework for their own department operations and collective bargaining agreements. Each will determine which of their employees will be eligible for a telework arrangement based on the types of activities they do, whether their work requires them to have a public presence or if data required for their job could pose a security risk when accessed offsite.

A worker who prints new drivers’ licenses would not be eligible to telework, for example, and would be designated an “office-centered” worker. Other employees who enter data, answer telephones, write, edit, design or deliver services virtually would be more appropriate for telework arrangements, and be designated “remote-centered.” Departments will ensure teleworkers have the equipment they need to work at alternative sites, which may include ergonomic desks, chairs and computer and other office equipment.

Department managers are being asked to consider how telework arrangements will affect department efficiency and the effectiveness of project teams. Single parents, for example, are less likely to miss work and more productive if they can eliminate time-sucking commutes that make it hard to juggle parenting or other caregiving needs that occur during the workday.

O’Duinn said telework opportunities also attract a far more diverse set of job applicants, including people who do not live close to urban centers and people with physical disabilities. Military spouses, who face three times the unemployment rates as other workers because of frequent relocations, will also benefit from state jobs that can be done remotely.

In addition to potential cost savings on office space, O’Duinn said taking commuter cars off the road has significant environmental impacts. According to the state’s telework dashboard, of 15 state departments tracking their telework rates, 15,000 state employees (95%) are teleworking some or all of the time, which translates to 612 metric tons of CO2 emissions avoided per week.

Image: The Ziggurat Building, home to the Departments of General Services and Technology.  Source: iStockphoto.com

About the Author: Dorsey Griffith

Dorsey Griffith is a seasoned, strategic communications professional and veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the private and public sectors. She spent more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter focused on health and medicine with additional experience covering education, government and regional affairs.