Some of Missouri's state departments are demonstrating they can deliver the same level of performance for the public with many of their staff working remotely — opening discussions about whether some staff may continue to work remotely beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the state is bringing people back to work every day, Gov. Mike Parson said last week, "We're also going to look at how we can make things more efficient" — and if things can be done better remotely, "that's fine, too."
While Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman also said the idea of keeping some state employees working remotely permanently is on the table, the state's Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann noted that would not necessarily be for everyone and maybe wouldn't be five days a week even for those for whom it could work.
Expanding remote work is not necessarily a new idea, but the massive and sudden shift to remote work for almost 40 percent of the state workforce beause of the pandemic has started some discussions.
"We are in the process of assessing what lessons we can learn to improve our management based upon our experience in the past few months responding to the COVID-19 challenge. All 16 executive departments are conducting in May 'after action reviews' to identify potential improvements. We anticipate that these reviews will identify some specific adjustments to remote work policies," OA spokesman Chris Moreland said.
That also comes at a time when the state has enacted hundreds of millions of dollars in budget withholds for the current fiscal year, with more expected for the current budget year and next year.
In response to a question about whether there's any department or division-level sense of how much money having a certain portion of staff working remotely could save, Moreland said: "Those discussions have started. Related to the 'after action reviews' and potential management improvements, we anticipate some departments will have specific recommendations. We also currently have a Leadership Academy capstone project team focused upon the potential benefits and options for future remote work."
He noted Missouri is also learning from the experiences of other state governments around the country.
In the background of every employer's decisions about staff returning to work is the question of whether there will be another wave of COVID-19 infections later in the year that could send some workers home again.
As of Thursday afternoon, 24,703 Missouri government employees were working at their job's normal location, and 13,791 were working remotely, according to data from OA.
Since May 1, 3,245 state workers had returned to their offices or other worksites, and 535 fewer employees were working remotely.
The numbers of state workers with different leave or other arrangements — related to COVID-19 or not — have also continued to decline.
OA is able to visualize those numbers because it has created an internal dashboard on the state workforce to track staff's status on department and division levels. OA is also tracking the impact on staff's ability to do their jobs' core duties and on the level of service provided to the public.
OA Director of Operational Excellence Cindy Dixon helped create the dashboard, which was done in-house with existing tools and staff.
Designated reporters within each state department submit information based on survey results each day, and human resources staff, department directors, deputy directors and division directors have access to the data.
Data has been logged since March 27 — four days after state office buildings closed to the public and access was limited to essential employees.
Erdmann said the system "gave us the facts to ask questions of each other" — that is, help compare similar departments and determine if more staff could work remotely.
The state reopened its office buildings to the public May 4 and brought thousands of state workers back to their offices, though some access restrictions remain in place.
As more staff have returned to their normal work locations, state workers' ability to do their core job functions and the impact on residents has improved — but not drastically overall, per OA's color-coded measurements.
As of May 1, OA's measure of the impact on citizens was at 94 percent green or yellow among state departments writ large.
Green indicates no major changes to services being provided to the public — with shifts being normal and no or limited disruption of normal services.
Yellow indicates some diminished services, such as longer wait times or delays, but with most core services still being delivered.
As of May 21, OA measured the impact on citizens at 96 percent green or yellow.
More specifically, OA and the departments of Transportation, Commerce and Insurance, and Public Safety were largely or almost entirely in the green, despite OA and DCI having significant percentages of their staff working remotely or being on leave — more than 50 percent in OA's case and more than 75 percent for DCI.
Most of Public Safety and MoDOT's staff were working on site, as they had been before reopening. The staff of those two departments number in the thousands.
OA has more than 1,500 staff, and DCI's staff numbers in the hundreds.
The Department of Mental Health's ability to deliver for the public was rated entirely in yellow, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also did not have any green. DESE also had some orange, indicative of significant wait times and services reduced to performing only critical or essential functions.
Most of DESE's staff were still working remotely as of May 21, and while most Mental Health workers were working in-person, as they had been May 1, a factor likely involved there is whether mental health professionals have in-person access to patients.
DESE employs more than 1,500 staff, and Mental Health employs more than 5,000.
Mental Health is among the largest state departments in terms of its number of workers, along with the departments of Corrections, Social Services, Public Safety and Transportation.
Only the departments of Natural Resources and Social Services had any indications of severe disruptions to customer service — signified by red, which indicates some offices were completely closed or not performing most of their normal services and were therefore unable to interact with the public.
Along similar color-coded definitions, the impact on state workers' overall ability to do their core job duties as normal — even with social distancing and other precautions in place — was at 97 percent green or yellow, according to OA. That was only a 1 percent positive change since May 1.
The Department of Revenue and MoDOT did not appear to report any reduced job capabilities, and Public Safety, OA and DCI also reported minimal disruptions.
Less than half of DOR's more than 1,200 staff were back at their normal worksites.
Mental Health and DESE were the worst-off, with Mental Health being entirely in yellow — indicative of reduced availability or disrupted workflow — and DESE having some orange in addition to yellow. Orange translates to state workers being available and reporting for work but not working on their core activities and instead focusing on alternative projects, maintenance or extra training.
As of May 21, it appeared all of the Department of Economic Development's less than 140 staff were working remotely or on leave — with the results on service delivery and job performance capabilities among the most mixed, along with the Department of Health and Senior Services, which also had most of its more than 1,500 staff working remotely.
The Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development also had a higher share of remotely-working staff. Its employees number in the hundreds, with most but not all workers reporting some diminished ability to do their core job functions.
Moreland said decisions about whether to authorize remote work are made at the department level.