Why did we look at teleworking?
We looked at teleworking because employee telework hours increased dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase is a significant change to how the county accomplishes its work. When employees telework, the county faces unique challenges that include employee eligibility and supervision, training and equipment needs, secure use of county information systems, compliance with privacy regulations, and employee worksite safety.
Annual telework hours have been steadily increasing since fiscal year 2016 (FY16). The large increase in telework hours in FY20 occurred in the last three and a half months of the fiscal year (March 15 through June 30, 2020) because of the pandemic. In the chart below, FY16 through FY20 show annual telework hours. Only the first quarter of FY21 (July through September 2020) is shown and further illustrates the extraordinary increase in teleworking.
County Telework Hours Significantly Increased Due to the Pandemic
Average telework hours per day decreased from the last quarter of FY20 as compared to the first quarter of FY21 from 14,300 to 12,200 hours. The decrease could be partially attributable to employees working less from their telework site and more at county worksites. For example, some county offices allowed a limited number of employees on-site at any one time by rotating schedules. Some of the decrease in telework hours may also be attributable to summer vacations.
Did the county have strong telework policy and procedures in place?
Yes. Strong policy and procedures provide the county clear guidance for day-to-day operations and help to ensure compliance with laws and regulations. The county’s telework policy generally compared well to pre-pandemic best practices. We used the county’s existing telework policy, telework agreement, and associated materials as our criteria based on interviews with human resources professionals at the county, and because the county pointed employees to these tools on its intranet’s telework resource page. A group of employees led by Central Human Resources is updating the county’s policy and making adjustments to take into account changes needed due to the pandemic and its ongoing nature.
The county made reasonable exceptions to its telework policy in March 2020 when it declared an emergency in response to the pandemic. For example, prior to the pandemic, the county required teleworking employees to have day-care or other supervision for anyone in the household requiring care through the workday. The county changed this requirement to allow teleworking parents to care for their children while still working from home. The county also had to initiate teleworking without telework agreements in place. The county has supported its telework policy well with its intranet.
How well has the county done to ensure that telework eligibility is determined fairly?
In normal circumstances, the county should allow employees to telework through a well-designed and fair eligibility process that includes elements such as the employee’s desire to telework together with the nature of the position’s work. Employees and their supervisors should work together to make the teleworking decision. The county’s standard telework agreement and ready access to it (discussed below) would help facilitate this process.
According to teleworking literature, some supervisors are more willing to allow teleworking than others. It is also possible that supervisors could discriminate against some employees who wish to telework. To address these unwanted situations, all employees who wish to telework would be more likely to receive fair treatment if the county specifies potential telework eligibility in its job descriptions thereby attaching teleworking more to the position than the person.
Who was eligible to telework during the pandemic?
The county declared an emergency due to the pandemic. Understandably, departments did not have time to go through the county’s established telework process, which typically is based on a process of mutual agreement. Under these circumstances, two general groups of employees are relevant: non-essential and essential employees. According to the AFSCME Local 88 union contract with the county, non-essential employees are not required to report to work due to a facility or operations delayed opening, early closure, or full curtailment. Essential employees are required to report to work regardless of facility closure or curtailment of some or all county operations. Some essential employees are eligible to telework but all non-essential employees were required to telework effective March 2020.
The county worked with unions to assign non-essential workers to telework or paid administrative leave. Most departments were able to find remote work that needed to be done for non-essential employees. In some departments, there was not always work for non-essential employees that could be done remotely because of the nature of their jobs. Some non-essential employees were receiving pay on standby while awaiting work. For example, Library management did not agree to teleworking alternatives proposed by employees and they were paid administrative leave.
Essential employees’ situation functioned differently. Union contract language ties the definition of essential employees to inclement weather. Given that inclement weather is significantly different from a pandemic, the county and unions allowed hardship exemptions for essential employees. Essential employees were allowed a hardship exemption if they were in a higher risk group for COVID-19 or had a family member in a higher risk group. The number of employees initially claiming hardship exemptions affected county services.
For example, many essential workers initially claimed hardship exemptions in the Health Department resulting in health clinic closures. The Health Department worked through back-to-work barriers with these employees. Most employees came back to work by combining telework with onsite work. Most clinics are open now but are operating at 60-70% capacity.
What equipment have teleworking employees used during the pandemic and how well was it tracked?
Employees’ equipment needs do not change simply because they telework from a different location than their county worksite. Given the long-term nature of the pandemic, the county should provide employees with the individual-use equipment they need to do their job, such as computers and head-sets. At times, employees had to provide their own computers or other equipment to telework. Information Technology (IT) did not have a reliable count of county versus employee-owned computers used from telework sites.
Some departments reported early difficulties getting their employees all the equipment they needed. One department reported difficulties getting the proper equipment for their employees to telework as late as August 2020. Most equipment needs have largely been resolved. In fall 2020, we sent a survey to all county employees to provide them with an opportunity to communicate their experiences during the pandemic. The survey found that 81% of respondents had the equipment they needed to telework as of mid-October 2020. However, the survey also shows at that time that many employees could still not get the equipment they needed to do their work or had connectivity problems.
During the pandemic, the county provided desktops or laptops, docking stations, monitors, keyboards, mice, headsets, ergonomic wrist rests, and office chairs that employees could take home during the pandemic. This county equipment could be lost or stolen without accurate tracking. As of March 2020, IT did have a form available on the county’s intranet for employees to report county-owned devices and other equipment used to telework.
Under normal conditions, teleworking employees check a box on the telework agreement indicating the general type of county equipment they use to telework. Checking these boxes and completing IT’s equipment form are duplicative tasks. It would be preferable if there were one method for documenting county-owned computer identification numbers or other individual-use equipment IDs at the same time as initiating telework, rather than having duplicative steps.
Have supervisors and employees taken sufficient telework training?
Training sets teleworking up to succeed by providing supervisors and their employees with the best skills and knowledge to accomplish the same responsibilities they normally have but in a different way. Without proper training, teleworking is less likely to be an effective way to work. According to county policy, all teleworking employees and their supervisors must complete training within three months of an approved telework agreement.
We obtained telework training statistics from Central Human Resources and found a significant number of employees did not complete their required telework training. As part of the Auditor’s Office pandemic survey sent to all county employees, only 64% of respondents reported completing telework training.
Online training is available to all county employees on Workday, the county’s enterprise resource planning system. In addition to online training courses, the county provides telework resources internally on its intranet. Well-trained employees protect both the county and its employees by helping to ensure communication, productivity, safety, privacy, and security while teleworking.
Accordingly, county departments should require supervisors and employees to complete all required telework training per county policy and monitor their training to ensure it happens. The county should also decide when employees should update their training.
During the time of our audit, did county supervisors monitor teleworking employees by establishing and measuring performance?
In normal teleworking circumstances, supervisors work with their employees by using a telework agreement to establish work objectives, clearly define work tasks, and measure results. This helps to ensure that employees are getting the county’s business done even though they are working remotely with less direct oversight. According to department human resource directors, some departments completed most of their telework agreements, several departments had some agreements complete, while others had few complete by August 2020. Six months after the pandemic began in March 2020, many employees had not completed a telework agreement.
As part of the Auditor’s Office pandemic survey, about 74% of respondents indicated they had a telework agreement in place by mid-October 2020. Human resource units did report that supervisors and employees worked together to make sure staff knew what they needed to accomplish while working from home. Our survey also indicated that 92% of respondents said their supervisors monitored their performance while they were working from home.
Under normal conditions, the telework agreement is essential for determining whether telework is the best work arrangement for both the employee and the county. When initially completed, the telework agreement essentially functions as an application for the employee to telework. Whether supervisors approve or deny employee telework requests, they should retain an electronic copy of the telework agreement at a place that is readily accessible, preferably on Workday and not in a paper-based personnel file.
Under pandemic conditions, the telework agreement is not a request but is just as important as under normal conditions. The supervisor and employee must still use the telework agreement to establish:
- Clear work objectives are set and results are measurable.
- Criteria used to evaluate the success of teleworking.
- Times the employee will be accessible including their schedule and ways the employee can be reached.
- The employee’s worksite is set up well and safe.
- How often the supervisor evaluates their employee’s work.
- Timeframes for tasks.
- Equipment and services used by the employee at the telework site.
- Training of both the employee and the supervisor.
- An understanding that the county will generally not reimburse most expenses associated with teleworking.
- Any employee owned property and equipment used for county business may be subject to a public records request, subpoena, court or administrative order that may require the employee to provide the county with full access to such equipment.
- An understanding with the employee that they are responsible for following all security guidelines issued by the county.
- An acknowledgement with the employee the county has the right to visit their home work area during normal work hours to ensure that it meets county safety standards.
Were telework agreements easily accessible for updating and evaluation?
No. When telework agreements are not easily accessible, it is both inefficient as well as a lost opportunity to assess whether teleworking is allowed equitably throughout the county.
Telework agreements are subject to change but are not readily accessible in departments or at a countywide level. According to our interviews with departmental human resource directors, departments file telework agreements in employees’ paper-based personnel files.
The county does not administer its telework agreements through its ERP system Workday. Maintaining telework agreements in Workday would make information more accessible and would be more efficient by providing electronic approvals, monitoring, and updating. For example, employees could easily update their time schedules, tasks, or equipment used for teleworking in Workday.
In the post-pandemic future, maintaining these agreements in Workday could better track equipment used to telework and could allow valuable analysis about whether the county provides telework equitably. For example, because telework agreement data is not practically available for analysis, the county cannot evaluate whether supervisors approved White employees for telework more often than they approved their Black, Indigenous, or People of Color counterparts nor can the Auditor’s Office.
How well did the county track employee’s telework time during the time of our audit?
Whether working from home or on county premises, employees always need to record their time consistently and accurately. Under any circumstances, the county is obligated under the Fair Labor Standards Act to accurately track the number of compensable hours performed by employees who are teleworking. Overall, employees recorded their telework time inconsistently in Workday. Teleworking employees recorded time as Telework, Administrative Leave, and as an Additional Time Type making it difficult to track. County employees likely recorded some of their telework hours as regular worked time.
The Local 88 Memorandum of Agreement stated employees could record their time as telework or administrative leave at the supervisor’s discretion. We found a number of instances in which employees in various departments entered time as administrative leave but also noted in comments that they were teleworking. The county did put telework timekeeping instructions on the intranet for employees at the beginning of the pandemic. However, given conflicting instructions and different practices throughout the county, we could not ensure the accuracy of telework time. The county should reiterate directions to employees about how to record telework time versus administrative leave and other codes.
Did the county properly safeguard the security of teleworkers’ IT equipment and privacy of confidential information?
The county’s telework policy allows use of employees’ own computers. Using employee-owned computers to telework increases county security and privacy risks because employee computers could already be compromised, may not have sufficient safety features installed, or critical updates may not have been completed. Teleworking equity could also become an issue if employees do not have access to computers at home.
According to county IT, county-owned computers are easier to maintain and service. Some of the other organizations we researched insist upon using company owned computers especially for long-term teleworking. When employees use their own computers for county business, the county has greater risks concerning security, protection of confidential county information, as well as overall compatibility. Employees may also have to provide the county full access to their personal computer for access to any public records.
To address these risks, the county should require using county-owned computers for employees who frequently telework and should emphasize using county-owned computers for employees who occasionally telework.
Were county employees’ telework environments properly set up to ensure their productivity and safety?
Teleworking employees can find useful information on the county’s intranet that addresses both productivity and safety. The site links to policies, important forms, training, county equipment tracking, as well as remote meeting resources. The telework resource page also offers tips for telework productivity and protection of confidential information.
In normal circumstances, employees who telework must have day-care or other supervision for any member of the household requiring care during their work hours. The county relaxed those requirements during the pandemic.
In a telework environment, productivity is negatively affected by poor or unreliable connectivity. A number of employees reported having trouble with connectivity on the Auditor’s Office pandemic survey, but we could not determine the cause of this problem. To help address connectivity issues, the county telework workgroup is considering a monthly allowance to help cover internet connection costs for teleworking employees.
Employees must complete a Telework Safety Checklist prior to beginning remote work. Using the checklist, employees affirm they conducted a self-assessment of the risk hazards of the telework site and that the supervisor has worked with the employee to address any areas of concerns. The checklist asks questions about the teleworker’s workspace, emergency preparedness, and ergonomics. The employee acknowledges on the telework agreement that the county has the right to visit their home work area during normal work hours to ensure that it meets county safety standards.
The county’s responsibility for employees’ health and safety while they are working from home is essentially the same as when employees work onsite at the county. If an employee is injured while working at from home during their teleworking hours, they must report the injury to their supervisor immediately. According to the risk manager, there were a few worker’s compensation claims related to teleworking during the first months of the pandemic, but there has been no continuing upward trend since that time.
- By July 2021, department directors should provide county-owned computers to employees who frequently telework and should emphasize using county-owned computers for employees who occasionally telework. The county should also provide employees with any other equipment typically used by one person to telework effectively, such as computer mice, computer monitors, and headsets. These examples are meant to be descriptive, not exhaustive.
- By February 2022, Central Human Resources should ensure the maintenance of telework information, including approved or denied telework agreements, electronically, preferably in Workday to allow:
- Accessibility to approved or denied telework agreements at the employee, supervisory, departmental and central levels.
- Electronic approvals and updating for better efficiency.
- Monitoring of teleworking performance and equity.
- Documentation of specific details, such as computer ID numbers, of all county equipment used to telework.
- To help ensure fairness among employees, by February 2022, Central Human Resources should indicate potential telework eligibility in county job descriptions.