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The “New Normal”: The Post-Pandemic Workplace

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
June 27, 2020

Our workplace environments—the physical settings, the processes and the cultures—evolved over time, but those norms were abruptly shattered with the advent of COVID-19. Based on advice from public health officials, the majority of the public sector workforce was directed to work remotely. Across the nation, government leaders at all levels are now seeking to phase the workforce back into traditional settings. This will require patience and reflection as they attempt to create a new normal rapidly.

Social Distancing: Many employees will expect some form of social distancing, as well as policies related to masks. This might require physical reallocation of office space, which might be complicated due to available space and resources. Additionally, many employees may be resistant to resuming traditional staff or team meetings, with concerns over health risks influencing their willingness to engage with others as they have in the past. Public administrators must be creative and adaptable in meeting these expectations.

Teleworking: In years past, when responding to quality-of-life concerns, many public agencies were hesitant to permit telework or flexible scheduling, raising concerns for performance. While not all roles are suitable for telework or flexible schedules, our collective experience with the pandemic suggests the modern workforce, with modern technologies, might easily perform professionally at high levels when working remotely. It will be impossible to continue to resist calls for a remote workforce or flexible scheduling without negatively affecting employee relations. There may be unintended, beneficial consequences to teleworking, as it might require less of a physical footprint, reducing costs associated with infrastructure development and maintenance, so public administrators should be open to considering these approaches.

Health Benefits: Most public sector agencies have provided health benefits for many years, often providing higher levels of health care coverage than the private sector. Having seen the devastation at their individual or family levels from COVID-19 or other devastating health crises, employees might be far more interested in their healthcare benefits. This suggests the need for public administrators to revisit their healthcare benefits, as this element of the compensation package may assume an entirely new relevance for employee recruitment and retention.

Economic Consequences: The pandemic has created unexpected impacts on the economy. Government revenues have dropped dramatically across the nation, affecting the ability for government agencies to provide services. Given many governments use a July 1—June 30 budget year, the full sense of this economic impact has yet to be seen. However, there are growing signs local and state level agencies will begin to reduce their workforces by leaving vacancies unfilled, through furloughs, or through elimination of positions. This will require public administrators to prioritize services to fund, but it additionally suggests they will be working with a fragile workplace where employees are uncertain of their own job stability, potentially exacerbated by personal and family finances already affected by the pandemic. Public administrators must be sensitive to this, taking actions to monitor the environment and decrease any tensions as best they can.

Sensitive Topics: The pandemic has been viewed quite differently by distinct groups within the community, often framed upon ideological lines. The news media and social media have illuminated what has at times been a sharp divide, often characterized by emotional attacks of those with an opposing perspective. Emotions were raw, and this was noteworthy even before the recent wave of protests were seen in our communities. While working remotely over the past few months, many employees may have found themselves in a self-imposed bubble with those holding the same beliefs. When these employees return to the workplace, there is the potential for interpersonal conflict between employees, or between employees and the public, either of which would be problematic. Public administrators must be prepared to identify potential problems, to minimize concerns in a proactive manner and to respond to problems which do arise in an effective, transparent, legal and ethical manner.

For many in the public sector, success and achievement has been in some manner tied to our capacity to understand and master our own workplace. The same might be said of many of our employees. In the United States, the workplace often serves as a major component of our social interactions. Many of us have gone through a major psychological and emotional shock from the pandemic—professionally and personally. When we do return to the workplace, it will likely be a somewhat foreign environment—familiar in some ways, but unfamiliar in others. To be successful as public leaders, we will need to be able to identify any changes which might exist, find the means to ameliorate any challenges which do arise and take advantage of any opportunities which emerge. Those in public service are expected to act at a higher level than the average person, and we must find a means to continue serving our communities as effectively and efficiently as we can, even as our workplace morphs into a new normal.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, is a member of Capella University’s public administration core faculty. Prior to this, he served in local government for over 30 years. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA; he may be reached at [email protected]

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