Stefan I. Mychajliw is enthusiastic about employees working remotely once the pandemic has eased. But then the Erie County, N.Y. comptroller was enthusiastic about remote work before the pandemic began.
As county officials around the country make decisions about how and whether to bring employees back to work, many may find their employees enthusiastic about remote work as well. A Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 52 percent of 1,000 U.S. workers would choose to permanently work from home full-time if given the option.
For Mychajliw, the region’s often bitter winters, combined with employees’ ability to work productively from home, cemented his decision to keep remote work working.
“We’re in the heart of downtown Buffalo,” he said. “People can see a storm physically rolling in and know that their commute home will be two hours.” During one blizzard, “I had to drive around and pick up employees” to make sure they got into the office to finish critical work and avoid penalties.
That experience led him to investigate remote work for his staff. Implementation began in 2019, so that when the coronavirus struck, “we were prepared. We didn’t miss a beat.”
During the pandemic, the office has operated with a skeleton crew of four or five employees on site, out of a staff of 30-plus people. Employees are in the office one or two days a week, according to Mychajliw. “I care less about process. I care more about results. I prefer remotely. It’s more productive. We can and should remain remote.”
“I wholeheartedly understand that with certain functions in county government people have to be there, but if they don’t have to be, let them take care of their families and get their jobs done. Treat them like adults,” he said.
Changes brought about by the pandemic also can benefit the public, according to Mychajliw, such as making forms available online, so people don’t need to travel to the county building.
The office works with a banking partner to ensure that high-tech security measures are in place. “We’ve been working on this so long, we’ve got it down to a science,” he said.
High-tech solutions allowed the Delaware County, Ohio Department of Building Safety to conduct building inspections virtually during the pandemic, according to Duane B. Matlack, the department’s director and chief building officer.
Before the pandemic, many government building departments around the country – including Delaware County — were hesitant to do virtual inspections, but it became a necessity, Matlack said. The department does about 20,000 inspections annually and now “probably about 10 percent are virtual. Before, it was zero to a half percent.”
In the future, “it’s going to be permanent,” he said. “It appears to be just as effective.” The department is finalizing a virtual inspection program that will be in place indefinitely. Plus, “we have created a new position that has an inspector splitting time between plan review and conducting virtual inspections — we’ve made our first hire.”
To adapt to the changes, the department provided staff training on how to use various platforms. When someone requests an inspection, that individual or the person’s contractor can use a phone to virtually walk the inspector around the site.
Virtual inspections result in cost-savings because it takes less time and inspectors don’t have to drive to building sites. “It’s convenient for homeowners,” Matlack said. “It’s effective for the customer and for us. There are good things that have come out of this.”
Randall D. Fuller, judge of the Domestic Relations Division of the Common Pleas Court of Delaware County, Ohio, acknowledged that when COVID hit, his team successfully “worked to figure out how to do everything remotely.” Fuller hears cases involving divorce, custody, visitation and child support.
Courts traditionally are slow moving, he noted, but “we completely changed our operations. Before COVID, you needed a [handwritten] signature in blue ink; now there’s e-filing. It’s a benefit to all parties. A lot of those things we’re going to continue.”
But, as COVID wanes, Fuller plans to transition employees back to the work site. “We do unique stuff,” he said. “People testify. Trials are preferable in person. You need to be able to see and control the surroundings. When people come to the courthouse, they realize the significance of it. There’s the reality of being in the courtroom instead of sitting at home on the couch.”
Making the transition back may be almost as tricky as the move to remote work in the first place. “When we decided to come back, we talked about it early and often, so they knew what was coming,” Fuller said. “They’ve had plenty of time to get vaccinated” and to make arrangements for childcare, which has been in short supply in so many places, he noted. “We had to be fair to them to make sure they can prepare.”
Betsy Swanson Hollinger plans to take what she learned co-managing a clinic back to her regular job as the learning and organizational development manager in the human resource department of Ventura County, Calif.
When the pandemic began, Hollinger, like many others, began working from home. Then, employees were called in to help as Disaster Service Workers.
“We had been teleworking for almost a year prior to deployment. None of us knew anything about working in a clinic.” But employees quickly united to get the community vaccinated, she said. Clinic workers “needed to learn who each of us is, what makes us tick and how can we become a team with such an interdisciplinary group.”
As county employees working as Disaster Service Workers are being released back to their home agencies “there’s sadness and grief leaving this job. It was so mission driven. The human spirit needed this,” Hollinger added.
The intense experience, she said, has given her a better knowledge of the skills needed for true leadership: Adaptability, flexibility, resilience, emotional intelligence.
“When you are stressed, you need to know your set point, to know how to manage your emotions so you don’t infect others, to know how to de-escalate and treat people with compassion,” she said. “Treating someone like a business process doesn’t work. That’s where sometimes we go wrong in leadership”
“I have a litany of stories and examples I’m going to teach leaders.”