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Live and Work Anywhere?

Posted on May 3, 2022


Ben K’s home office
Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Ben Kittelson, Senior Consultant with Raftelis and ELGL Board Chair (LinkedIn | Twitter). 
What I’m…
  • Listening To: Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Survival Album, it’s turning towards summer which means the weather is appropriate for some reggae
  • Watching: So many things, last night we watched Barry and We Own This City (the new show about policing from David Simon), and I can’t wait for the season finale of Moon Knight tomorrow
  • Reading: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, it’s so good and I can’t believe I didn’t read it when it came out, and America on Fire by Elizabeth Hinton, which is about the history of police violence and rebellion.

Let’s go back in time to the year 2019. It feels like forever ago, it was the year of the last in-person ELGL Conference, before Disney+ and all these Marvel TV shows, before Liverpool won the Premier League, and before the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in 2019, I made a career change because my partner got a job offer we could not say no to and it meant we had to move from Durham, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.

Before I left my local government job I made the case to try out remote work and, unbelievably, the organization said yes. So, I tested out remote work before it was cool. Our office had a policy of allowing one work from home day a week, but I had never used it and I went from being 100% in the office to three weeks remote and one week in the office out of a month. And it went okay…

I distinctly remember missing the hustle and bustle of City Hall, poking my head into someone’s office to bounce ideas off of them or just to catch up, and (this is going to sound a little crazy) meetings. I missed being in meetings, hearing a side conversation, bringing up a new idea, seeing people you don’t work with every day. Instead I became the lone voice on the phone that people would forget was there or would accidentally hang up on. On the other hand, I was really productive, it turns out without people popping into your office or pulling you into meetings its really easy to focus on your work.

At the end of the trial period the organization did not want to create a remote working policy, so I was back to the office Monday through Thursday and making a 480 mile commute every week (thank goodness for very cheap Frontier flights). So I made a career change, I took a consulting job that allows me to work with local governments all over the country and I do that all in my home office with easy access to snacks and my dog. I went through some of the same struggles as I did working remotely for a local government but I learned how to feel connected to my co-workers remotely and how to keep my work from totally taking over my home life.

Then the pandemic hit and every organization figured out a new remote work world whether they wanted to or not. Even I, who had some experience working remotely before March of 2020, had to learn new tools and get used to seeing people in person even less. We as a profession made it work, we saw Council meetings go fully online and everything from payroll processes to budget development being completed from someone’s home. Everyone learning new tools like Zoom or Teams made connecting and meeting way easier and better. Necessity is the mother of invention and a whole industry that was averse to change, even the most innovative organizations, made rapid changes to all sorts of ways we work.

I’ve noticed a change recently, as the pandemic fades or is sort of behind us (kind of…) organizations are changing their remote work approach. I’ve worked with local governments that have a hybrid approach, with a few remote days a week, and others that are back to the 2019 days of 100% in the office. My own workplace, where about 25% of employees work 100% remotely, is adopting a Flexible Workplace Model where all employees have the option to work from home two days a week.

Other industries are exploring fully remote workplace approaches. For example, AirBnB announced a policy where you can live anywhere, even live in another country for 90 days, with no impact on your pay or job status. They’re planning to make it work with at least quarterly in-person meetings. The CEO and Co-Founder, Brian Chesky, noted that their approach was aiming to “combine the efficiency of Zoom with the meaningful connection that happens when people come together.”

I think this is a great example of taking lessons from the pandemic workplace and being thoughtful about what to keep and what to change. I don’t know what the right answer is, I think some amount of flexibility will allow local governments to better retain talent. Maybe people going through life changes that lead to a move, like I did, can keep working for a City in another State. But at at the same time I agree that as public administrators we should understand the impacts of our decisions on the people and places we manage. Part of the appeal of local government work is also seeing the change you can make, which is less possible when you don’t work in or even near that place.

I think there needs to be a thoughtful approach to what remote, flexible work looks like. What is the AirBnB equivalent of taking the lessons learned and adopting a new workplace policy in local government? An approach that allows a City in Kansas to hire a talented worker in California, but ensures that employee understands the impact of their work. I don’t think remote work will be a fad and we’ve proven that it can be just as, if not more, productive as a 100% office-based workplace, so the challenge is to find the right balance. Maybe in some communities and for some positions a quarterly visit is enough to keep relationships going and understand the local issues, but in others maybe a remote policy isn’t realistic at all. I think it will look different based on each organization’s priorities, circumstances, and values, but I’m excited to see what comes. The organizations that have a thoughtful approach will have a leg up in terms of attracting and retaining talent.

 

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