Years from now, when Americans look back at our transition away from a normal work environment as Covid-19 infections escalated, we’ll probably describe those days as full of confusing decisions.  That was to be expected – it’s hard to practice for something that only happens every hundred years or so.  Unfortunately, we haven’t practiced for a return to work, either.  

Before the pandemic, it would have been easy to make an argument that we’d have much more time to analyze data and make good decisions about when to return to work, compared to our departure.  But it turns out that argument would have been wrong.

At this point, each day that we’re out of work is likely adding weeks to the economic recovery process.  The pressure to return to a functioning economy is enormous.  Despite that, we still don’t fully understand what situations lead to rapid viral spread, and we don’t have many treatments to reduce the lethality of the virus either.  The result is that we are being forced to make decisions about how to return to work before it’s even somewhat comfortable. 

Agencies are in this together, separately.

Those decisions are being made by both public and private-sector leaders across the country right now.

Each public agency is handling the return to onsite work differently, and there are plenty of good reasons for this.  Some agencies have mandates that are especially urgent during this health crisis and economic shutdown.  At some agencies, most employees can productively work from home; at others, it’s impossible to get much done without being onsite.  And there are also major variances between states in how agencies are returning to work, because each state faces a different rate of Covid-19 spread, has different rules in place and is experiencing a different financial reality.

But the broad strokes of the New Normal are starting to become visible across the country.  A recent article highlighted the likely changes at public agencies, including temperature checks,  the loss of conference rooms to provide larger individual workspaces and forced remote work in some cases (due to a lack of enough space for each employee to safely return.)   In Missouri, many state offices opened on May 1, with the National Guard helping to screen the health of citizens who are entering the buildings.  Indiana has opened up some offices with limited interactions and recommended health screenings for employees.  In Alabama, where the capital is experiencing a spike, the Department of Commerce is requiring employees to wear masks in common areas and during socially-spaced meetings.

The one silver lining in this forced remote work is that some states have learned that employees are being just as productive working remotely.  As states face massive budget cuts and space constraints due to social distancing, allowing remote work for employees is becoming an attractive option. 

Kansas’s secretary of state, DeAngela Burns-Wallace, recently said  “For those employees who are delivering services effectively remotely, then we want to keep them there.”  Missouri, officials have been more circumspect;  they have acknowledged they are studying the impacts of remote work on performance, and those policies will likely change as a result of this review.

Even for those that might prefer working in the office in general, remote work might look better in the short term.  With mandatory masks and temperature checks at many offices, and the benefits of meetings curtailed due to social distancing guidelines, the office banter won’t be quite as fun as it used to be.  At least for the time being, that’s okay in the eyes of many managers and administrators.

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