STATUS: Research in progress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on day-to-day workplace operations at state departments of transportation (DOTs). Quarantine orders and requirements for physical distancing required shifts in business processes, including modifications of telework policies that allow more employees to work remotely and allow employees with existing telework agreements to increase their remote work. This helped maintain business continuity through the pandemic disruption and may prove to be an effective way to respond to future disruptions. Although some of these adjustments are likely to be rolled back as the current pandemic eases, increased use of flexible work environments is widely recognized as a permanent feature of the future of work. Flexible work environments allow employees to work all or part of the workweek remotely from alternative locations (e.g., home office, co-working space, or satellite office), and/or on an alternative schedule.
As agency leadership, managers, and employees consider longer-term and wider adoption of flexible working environments, they must consider the benefits and risks for the agency as well as for individual employees and their supervisors. One concern is whether employees are more or less productive in flexible work environments. Managers accustomed to working alongside their direct reports may struggle to transition to new methods of communication and monitoring, thus hampering effective monitoring and direction of a team. Electronic monitoring using key loggers and similar applications are one approach to tracking employee activity for evaluating performance, although these methods can erode trust. Human resources managers need to address concerns about equity within the agency because flexible work environments may not be appropriate for all positions. Cybersecurity threats may be elevated when employees access agency networks from external locations, requiring new approaches to IT management and employee awareness. Business processes that were designed for a traditional workplace may need to be modified and then re-learned, perhaps in new systems and applications, although this can also spur needed modernization.
A shift to flexible work environments may also have cost implications for the agency. For example, providing computers, monitors, and other equipment for remote workers may affect IT budgets. At the same time, reconfiguring or reducing physical office space and employee parking to accommodate new occupancy patterns may bring cost savings.
For individual employees, flexibility to adjust schedules to accommodate daily family routines can reduce stress and interruptions, increasing individual performance. Eliminating a commute—even for some days a week—may also increase employee satisfaction and productivity by reducing costs and allowing employees to reclaim valuable time for work or personal use. Flexible work environments can attract new talent in a competitive labor market where workers increasingly expect and value work-life balance. While often viewed as a reward offered to strong performers, flexible work environments can be a strategy to improve the performance of employees who thrive on a schedule and situation different from the typical, 9-to-5 office setting. At the same time, reduced in-person interaction can make onboarding new employees and mentoring more challenging.
Research is needed to provide state DOT leadership, managers, and employees with up-to-date information on the benefits and risks of flexible work environments and on how to assess the suitability of these arrangements at their organization.
The objectives of this research are to (1) conduct a rapid review of the recent experience of state DOTs in increased use of flexible work environments; (2) synthesize the recent experience to identify successful practices and key considerations; and (3) develop a template for managers and employees to assess their suitability for a flexible work environment. The template will be designed to inform decisions about remote work and modified work schedules for a wide range of state DOT job types. The information collected using the template will also support the aggregation of assessments for reporting to agency leadership.