State eyeing hybrid telework model for half of workforce

Post-COVID, more than 20,000 would continue to work from home

CLOSE TO HALF of the state’s executive branch employees could continue some form of telework even once the pandemic ends, Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan said Tuesday.

Speaking to the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees at a hearing on Baker’s $45.6 billion fiscal 2022 budget proposal, Heffernan laid out the broad contours of a proposed state employee remote work plan. Of 44,000 full-time employees working for state government, Heffernan said, more than 20,000 could telework in the future in some sort of “hybrid” plan. He said employees would come into the office some days and work remotely on other days.

The state’s stance on telework could be a precursor of what happens in the rest of the economy, and a permanent shift to telework could have major implications for downtowns, commercial real estate, and transportation. The MBTA, for example, is struggling to chart its future service plans amid great uncertainty about commuting and work patterns.

In a February Chamber of Commerce speech, Gov. Charlie Baker mused about the future of work, revealing that in conversations he had with state employees virtually none wanted to remain fully remote, but none wanted to return to the office full-time either.

“The sweet spot seems to be come in one to three days a week, or more or less depending on what’s going on,” Baker said. “It speaks to the fact I think for many organizations the way they operate is going to be different even when we get through the pandemic.”

Baker said people in state government have developed new ways of doing things that are more effective than before. For example, town halls, job fairs, or information sessions held online reached more people more easily than similar events would have, had they been held in person in locations around the state. More broadly, Baker is also seeking an outside firm to conduct a study of the future of remote work post-pandemic.

At a virtual State House hearing, Heffernan said the state is looking at upgrading its office space and technology to prepare for that kind of more flexible workforce. For example, the goal is to get all employees identical devices that they can then use to connect to whatever state system they need to work from home.

The shift, Heffernan said, will “allow us to have a better and more flexible workplace both here in Boston and around the Commonwealth.”

In recent email to state employees, Baker wrote that state government is working to incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic into a new “hybrid work model” in many state offices, which will be rolled out through 2021. “The combination of telework and in-office work will allow for a flexible and resilient workforce,” Baker wrote.

Baker wrote that less populated workspaces will be designed to increase collaboration spaces “to ensure in-office time is valuable and effective.” There will be a new workplace reservation system to coordinate in-office work. There will be new technology and additional training to improve telework capabilities. Some offices, particularly around Boston, will be updated and made smaller.

Curtis Wood, the state’s secretary of technology services and security, said government agencies had been talking about the future of work, including teleworking, even before COVID-19 hit. “The pandemic not only accelerated this planning but also provided us with critical insights as to how a hybrid workforce can function in the future,” Wood said.

Today, Wood said, the agency is trying to move toward a model where every employee is issued a laptop, along with a docking station, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. That way, employees could use their laptop in the office or elsewhere, rather than having a desktop at the office and a laptop for travel. The state recently procured e-signature software to reduce the need for physical paperwork.

Representatives of some of the state’s public unions confirmed that they are in negotiations with the administration about future remote work. Patrick Russell, president of MOSES, the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, said he could not reveal details of the ongoing negotiations. But he said part of the discussion is understanding which employees’ jobs are more conducive to remote work, either in whole or in part.

David Holway, the national president of NAGE, the National Association of Government Employees, said the union has been in discussions with the Baker administration for the past year. Many of its members are eager to continue teleworking, having found that they are more efficient that way.

“The Baker administration has done an excellent job in equipping their workforce for telework, and it makes sense economically for them to have people continue to telework,” Holway said. “They won’t need as much office space. It helps with the environment that people aren’t commuting with their cars.”

The shift is not confined to the executive branch. Auditor Suzanne Bump said at the hearing that her agency is also examining what it would take to shift to a hybrid working model moving forward. “Consistent with the planning going on in other executive branch offices, I expect that when we return it will be with a new model combining in-office and virtual work,” Bump said, adding that the details of that model are still “in the planning stages.”