Rebecca Ryan, founder of NEXT Generation Consulting, discusses the future of work in municipal government on April 15.

With the help of a futurist and insights from communities that have reimagined their municipal operations, local leaders gathered virtually on April 15 to envision the future of local government work and to plan for a new post-pandemic reality.

During a webinar co-hosted by the Massachusetts Municipal Human Resources association and the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association, futurist and author Rebecca Ryan discussed the evolving workplace, and leaders from Franklin and Lexington described how they are handling the town hall reopening process.

Ryan, also an economist, Zen priest and founder of NEXT Generation Consulting, said local governments can use their pandemic experience to improve operations for citizens, leaders and employees.

“In the ‘before times,’ we had several defaults that were actually not good for productivity,” Ryan said. “They were not good for employee engagement. They were not good for employee happiness. This disruption gives us an opportunity to rethink that entire employer-employee contract and right-size it in a way that actually fits the way work gets done today.”

Ryan opened with some current statistics:
• Massachusetts ranked third nationally for remote working during the second half of 2020.
• 56% of jobs can be done remotely.
• 86% of employees want to work from home at least part of the time.
• 17% of employees say they would quit if forced to come back into their workplaces full time.

The past year’s upheaval has changed the expectations of government workers, Ryan said, noting that in a recent survey of 710 public-sector employees just 2.5% of respondents said they want to return to workplaces full time. Nearly two-thirds want a hybrid arrangement, and almost one-third want to work full time from home.

Ryan urged municipal leaders to consult administrators, elected officials and employees to gauge expectations for future working arrangements.

“Experimentation, I think, in these next two years is going to be the key to some of this,” Ryan said. “We’re going to try some stuff. We’re going to see what works and see what doesn’t.”

Ryan asked participants to identify positions according to the following categories:
• Must be in-person (e.g., first responders, public works employees)
• Public-facing but can be done offsite (e.g., managers, elected officials)
• Must be onsite, but don’t typically engage the public (e.g., groundskeepers, wastewater workers)
• Non-public-facing and not requiring a specific location (e.g., payroll processors, webmasters)

During this exercise, officials identified post-pandemic obstacles to operating remotely or as hybrid workplaces, including collective bargaining limitations, citizens’ expectations for face-to-face services, open meeting law requirements, spotty Internet service in rural areas, and some state regulations that require in-person services, such as building inspections. Officials also expressed equity concerns, saying they want to ensure fairness among workers with different job requirements and weigh the varied needs of employees for work-life balance.

Ryan urged leaders to address employees’ concerns creatively while ensuring quality services, even if it means changing policies. Employers that operate more flexibly can realize significant benefits, including saving $11,000 per year, on average, for each employee who works at home half-time, maintaining or improving productivity, and having more geographic flexibility to fill critical roles.

“Overall, the expectable future for most local governments, I believe, will be hybrid,” Ryan said, “because it’s a talent-retention, talent-attraction strategy. It’s going to help with your carbon footprint. It’s going to help with costs.”

Reopening town hall
Franklin Town Administrator Jamie Hellen said his community transformed its Town Council room into a TV production studio in order to restore in-person meetings for most committees.

The town installed additional television monitors, cameras and microphones, and has separate laptops to handle presentations and control Zoom functions. Chairs were spaced to protect people in the room, face masks are required, and custodians disinfect regularly, he said.

Residents can watch the proceedings on local cable access and may participate via Zoom or by phone. For safety reasons, residents can’t yet attend meetings in person, but meeting viewership has increased, Hellen said. It took Franklin several months to refine the process, he said, and the experience reaffirmed the importance of addressing the needs and concerns of different groups.

“I’ve got multiple generations with constituencies in the community that are very diverse,” Hellen said. “And the reality is in our community, and I’m sure, for many of yours, it’s critical to have flexibility in options for all citizens.”

Lexington Town Manager James Malloy said his community has been restructuring the work environment for employees. An analysis of municipal positions concluded that 2% could function remotely, 69% could be partially remote, and 29% needed to be in person. Officials developed a remote-work policy for employees who can work off-site at least part of the time. They consulted with a management analyst, department managers and the Select Board, and reached agreements with the collective bargaining units. The town expects to implement the policy before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, Malloy said.

“Prior to the pandemic, I believe it would have been very difficult for us to come forward with a flexible work schedule that included a permanent remote-work policy,” Malloy said. “However, after several months of working remotely, it became pretty evident that our staff stepped up, and provided the same high-quality services they were providing before the pandemic.”

Malloy said the new arrangement will make Lexington a more attractive employer, reduce employee commuting times, allow the town to ease overcrowding, and potentially save Lexington millions of dollars in renovation and expansion costs.

Remote Work Feasibility – Town of Lexington (700K PDF)
Remote Work Application & Agreement – Town of Lexington (330K PDF)
Remote Work Policy – Town of Lexington (712K PDF)
Presentation: Changing Dynamics of the Municipal Workplace – Town of Franklin (4M PDF)
Presentation: Future of Work – Rebecca Ryan (7.5M PDF)