Thousands of Utah state employees are still working from home

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Brown who works from home and thinks it has many advantages, including cleaner air, is the coordinator of resource stewardship for the Department of Administrative Services. Months after Utah's first coronavirus case, about four in 10 Utah state employees are telecommuting. The state got an early start on the transition and looks to continue some level of it permanently.

Seven months after Utah’s first recorded coronavirus case, 8,600 state employees are working from home.

That is 40% of the state’s estimated workforce of 22,000 and includes just about everyone whose job allows such remote employment, according to a presentation this week to Utah lawmakers.

The transition to at-home work was rapid and relatively smooth, according to the Governors Office of Management and Budget’s Jeff Mottishaw. That was by design.

The state had done a trial run during a pilot program from September 2018 to May 2019 with 136 workers from four agencies. The experiment was intended to explore the feasibility of widespread telecommuting and also identify the challenges.

It set goals of improved air quality, more efficient use of state property and buildings, an expanded job base in rural areas, increased worker productivity and improved retention and recruitment opportunities.

Evaluating the project as a success, the state prepared to expand it with a target of some 30% of eligible employees, or about 2,600.

Then COVID-19 hit and leaders accelerated the program across departments to involve 8,219 workers by March and, increasing to 8,600 in the current count.

“That is close to 100% of what agencies had estimated was realistic,” Mottishaw said.

Michelle Brown was one of the guinea pigs in the pilot project. She’s been doing it nearly two years now and thinks it’s everything it’s cracked up to be.

As someone whose job involves getting state agencies to adopt best practices for air quality, she’s happy about the expected reduction in emissions and the reported increase in productivity.

She also feels she personally thrives in the “new normal” of telecommuting.

“I’m very fortunate. I’ve got room for a home office, I’ve got my dogs — I have two dogs and they’re awesome, they’re my little coworkers," Brown says. "It’s just good, life is good,” she said from her remote workspace in her Murray home.

She acknowledges that it’s not for everyone.

State workers with children at home are having to deal with home-schooling or other COVID-related challenges. There are also employees for whom work is their sole social outlet, and supervisors need to recognize that, Brown says.

“We would always tell people, even before COVID, if you don’t feel like you’re being successful, then we’ll pull you out. It’s fine, it’s not a negative thing.”

The transition hasn’t been free. The Legislature set aside $6 million to pay for it — mostly on building upgrades and increasing the bandwidth of the state’s internet network.

But it already is resulting in some savings, including $220,000 in annual costs for a Department of Health building that the state was able to vacate and lease to the University of Utah. Mottishaw said the state also hired 60 new employees to handle the expanded Medicaid program without having to provide new office space or buildings.

State supervisors have reported a 20% overall increase in employee productivity, he told lawmakers.

Stuart Cowley, the head of the state fleet, said decreased usage by state employees already means some 100 vehicles won’t need to be replaced that otherwise would have been and some agencies have expressed interest in reducing their vehicle usage by as much as 50%.

It’s unclear what the state workforce will look like post-COVID, but planners want, at minimum, to be able to trigger a return to widespread work-at-home status on specific occasions, such as on bad air days or days of heavy snowfall.

One of the big obstacles of moving to a remote workforce has always been a cultural one, Mottishaw said. But he’s seen that start to change.

“We needed to have some kind of culture shift to support it,” Mottishaw said. “In my opinion, we’re starting to have that culture shift.”

Brown echoed that, saying she’s heard it countless times from people who’ve become recent converts to working at home.

They’ve told her: “I don’t know why I was kind of dragging my feet before. I’m getting so much more done. And there’s less stress.”

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