The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of employees, including those in the public sector, to change where they do their work. Employers suddenly needed a way to balance complying with public health directives and mitigating the spread of disease, while simultaneously continuing operations. Remote work gave organizations an effective way to continue business as (mostly) usual and keep employees safe during the pandemic.
But what was initially a temporary, reactive move has morphed into an expectation by workers. A 2022 poll from Gallup found that of those who currently work remotely, 60% would seek other positions if their employer did not offer at least some opportunity for remote work. People have become accustomed to several benefits of being able to work from home, such as easier childcare, increased flexibility, and shorter commutes.
Yet, many employers, both public and private, have pushed for a return to the office, with tech giants Apple and Meta among them. In early 2023, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would require thousands of federal employees to cease working remotely. New York City expressed intentions to end remote work in 2022, but later backtracked. It’s clear that employers want employees back in the office, which isn’t popular among workers.
Governments may have more difficulty adapting to the new reality of work arrangements. Many public sector jobs such as those in social services or legal departments necessitate face-to-face meetings with clients. Some government jobs are simply not compatible with working from home, like positions in transportation, transit or public works. It also may be harder for public agencies to change course once a decision has been made to return to the office.
If government employers fail to provide the flexible working arrangements that American workers desire, the public sector could lose employees to private organizations. An exodus of skilled workers who desire more opportunities for remote work could exacerbate public agencies’ already existing difficulties in filling open job positions and retaining employees.
This CivicPulse report seeks to provide public sector employers with important insights and context to navigate this new environment. We draw upon a national survey of 1,149 state and local government employees to benchmark the prevalence of remote work in public sector jobs, and its ensuing relation to job satisfaction.
Respondents conveyed that state and local governments have indeed pivoted more toward remote work since the pandemic. Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents said that employees at their agency are working more remotely now than they did prior to the pandemic. Additionally, among those that have seen increases in remote work, 75% believe that these changes in remote work are permanent.
Employees were much more likely to mention the new benefits of remote work compared to any challenges. Many highlighted perks such as better work/life balance, increased work satisfaction, and improved team morale. Respondents also mentioned several benefits for employers, noting financial savings, more attractive job openings, larger geographic pools of candidates, and better employee retention.
“There is a new culture since the pandemic where people really value the balance and flexibility that remote work offers. Since the state is unable to meet the standards of compensation that would benefit recruiting and retention, the option to work remotely could attract new people or prompt current employees to stay.” – State Government Employee
Of note, some respondents did point out the drawbacks of remote work. Common complaints included: difficulties in providing some services remotely, diminished accountability, missed team building and interactions between employees. There were split views on whether remote work has improved or reduced productivity, further blurring the perceived need to return from remote work.
There are sharp differences in the availability of remote work between state and local governments. Of state employees, 83% reported that their department allowed for at least some remote work, compared to just 68% of local government employees. This disparity may be because services are by nature more dispersed at the state level compared to the local level, making remote work more feasible.
Within local governments, access to remote work has a direct relationship with population size. Large localities (>500,000 people) offer remote work the most often, with 79% of employees of such governments stating that their department allows for some remote work. Smaller localities offer remote opportunities less frequently, as only 59% of employees of small local governments (<25,000 people) say their employer makes accommodations for remote work. Disparities in remote work access according to population could be due to employees of smaller governments being asked to fill multiple roles, or a limited availability of reliable broadband connection.
Different departments in state and local governments are more or less likely to offer remote work. Human Resources, Family Support, Environment, and Finance Departments offer remote work at a relatively high rate, around 82-84%. Meanwhile, Health, Legal, Public Works, and Transportation Departments have a markedly lower presence of remote work. The nature of some departments’ responsibilities likely obliges more in-person work and diminished capabilities for remote work, resulting in the variations seen across department types.
In an environment where competition for talent is high, public-sector employers should look at remote work options as an opportunity to become an employer of choice. Allowing remote work when possible is likely to reduce the risk of higher turnover amidst competition with the private sector. It also appears that the flexibility of hybrid settings permits better balance with home life.
There is little concrete evidence from over the course of the pandemic that employees work suffers in a remote environment, employers will have to provide a strong reason for commuting to an office. Without sufficient justification, employees may feel compelled to search for employment at agencies that have embraced remote work.
The race to provide remote work opportunities between small and large state and local governments could amplify competition for talent within the public sector. Departments in small local governments with a high proportion of professional or administrative staff may be particularly vulnerable. No longer bound by geographic region, employees in small local governments may be enticed to look for employment in more densely populated, larger governments. In addition to pay rates likely being higher, the ability to work remotely at least some of the time may make up for the occasional long commute. Until remote work leaves its infancy, remote options will likely remain integral in a competitive labor market, especially administrative careers.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sampled survey of state and local government employees. Responses were collected between August 9 and October 24, 2022.
The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Qualtrics and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.
Below are the key survey items used to generate this brief:
Are any staff in your department or agency allowed to work fully remotely (e.g., 5 days a week)?
Are any staff in your department or agency allowed to work partially remotely (e.g., less than 5 days a week)?
Are staff in your department or agency working remotely more now than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic?
If you were to guess, will this increase in remote work be permanent or temporary?
Do you have any additional thoughts on the advantages or disadvantages of offering remote work in your department or agency?
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse