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“Guarding Against Creating Two Classes of Employees” - How COVID-19 Has Impacted Essential and Remote Government Employees Differently

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Neil Reichenberg, Former Executive Director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR).

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of attention paid to workers who previously spent every day in an office now working entirely from home. Indeed, the percentage of employees who said their employer offered remote work options grew from 39% pre-pandemic to 57% once the pandemic hit the U.S. This is a significant change worth exploring.

But as is so often the case, these “jobs that can be done from anywhere” tend to get a lot more attention than the jobs of those whose presence is required - those folks who will never be able to work from home. This is both the topic of our latest book and a key reason why UKG started The Workforce Institute in the first place.

It's also why a recent report from CPS HR Consulting caught my eye. The report, titled Leading Through A Pandemic - The Impact of COVID-19 on the Public Sector Workforce found that overall, government employees feel stressed, tired, and anxious. The results are based on a large survey of almost 20,000 public sector employees from 65 governmental organizations - but perhaps most interestingly, more than half of the respondents stated that they were designated as essential workers who need to report to their work sites.  

The survey found disparities in the results from essential workers required to report to work and those who are working remotely. Both essential and remote workers by a large percentage (42 percent of essential and 34 percent of remote workers) reported that their workloads have increased. Over 80% of essential workers said they have the equipment and supplies to protect themselves and can socially distance from co-workers at work. 94% of remote workers reported that they have the tools, technology, and home environment to be productive and 85% of respondents who did not work at home previously want to either work from home permanently or at least part-time.

The differences between essential and remote workers point out the importance of governments developing different strategies to address the needs of their workforces. As compared to remote workers, essential employees were less satisfied with how their organizations have adapted to COVID-19, their knowledge of organizational policies, understanding their health resources and benefits, and the communications received from leaders, managers and coworkers.

The report concludes that “Public-sector employers must therefore ensure that essential employees have the information, tools and support they need, especially if they are risking their health and safety to serve constituents. This includes guarding against creating two classes of employees - remote and essential - who could be perceived as the haves and have nots.”

The report also includes recommendations for leaders including:

  • Providing wellness and mental health support and resources.
  • Focusing on changes to the workloads of employees both to avoid burnout and to ensure those with decreased workloads remain productive.
  • Utilizing a variety of communication strategies to ensure that employees are provided with needed information.
  • Designing strategies to ensure that managers understand how to: manage remote worker performance; design jobs with remote work in mind; allow flexibility in work hours to ensure work-life balance; and provide essential technology tools and resources.

The report notes that remote work can expand the geographic search for talent, which could enhance the ability of government to recruit and retain the mission critical talent it needs.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a significant impact on how we think of remote work, but we also must not lose sight of those whose jobs require them to report to work each day and whose willingness to do so we all rely on and benefit from.

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