It’s only been four months since the pandemic’s first wave began sweeping the United States, forcing many federal offices to push employees out of the office in an effort to avoid infection.  Four months can seem like years when so many daily habits are uprooted at once with so little warning.

Many effects of the shutdown were obvious ahead of time.  Unemployment skyrocketed, people hoarded supplies and people quickly started tiring of staying inside of their homes.  One surprise, however, was that the productivity of many office workers, including public employees, remained high despite all of the challenges. 

Within two months of the shift to working from home, the Social Security claims backlog was down 11% and calls were being answered more quickly.  The US Patent and Trademark office also reported an uptick in productivity thanks in part to heavy lifting on the part of the IT department who quickly transitioned thousands of workers to remote systems and overhauled outdated IT infrastructure.

This productivity surprise may turn out to be extremely important as the number of new COVID-19 cases picks up across the country.  Nationwide, 80% of people are worried about a new wave of infections  where they live.  Employees that have been called back to the office are growing more concerned as infection rates increase, and those who haven’t been called back are increasingly opposing returning to the office until the situation improves. 

All of this increases the likelihood that employees will stay home longer than anyone anticipated.  And every week that passes with most of the office working remotely, it’s becoming a smoother process.  Technological barriers are being removed.  Employees are having to find ways to accomplish tasks that are performed less frequently.  And even many people who didn’t expect it to go well are having to admit that having large portions of agency staff working remotely for at least a portion of the workweek may be feasible even after the virus passes.

It will be especially temping to states, who are facing a major financial crisis absent federal intervention – or possibly even with a federal intervention.  Buildings aren’t cheap.  Even after the rent is paid, there’s still furniture, heating and cooling, security and many other recurring costs that increase with each square foot that’s used.  One of Canada’s primary administrative executives recently disclosed that the government is investigating how much space they will need over the long term given all that they’ve learned during the shutdown, and that number is expected to decrease due to effective work-from-home policies.

If public employees, the financial powers and the productivity metrics support work-from-home arrangements, managers may be given less discretion going forward to demand in-person work on their teams.  This may be one of the only silver linings to come out of a horrible year for almost everyone.

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