State agencies are navigating new forms of remote and flexible work

By Chris McCahill 

As with many organizations, the COVID pandemic prompted state transportation agencies across the country to embrace greater flexibility in where, when, and how employees work. For large organizations with diverse staff—from road maintenance crews to administrative support—the transition presents many challenges. A new NCHRP report outlines how several agencies have approached those challenges and offers guidance for those still trying to find their way. 

The researchers interviewed human resources staff and executive leaders at transportation agencies in seven states: Arkansas, California, Louisiana, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. While each agency has taken a different approach, they share a common concern in ensuring that flexible work schedules are implemented consistently and equitably, since they are often left to the discretion of managers. Many also struggle to evaluate worker productivity. 

The study notes: 

Managers are used to being able to evaluate if their employees are working by seeing them in the office, as opposed to measuring productivity and performance based on established metrics. 

For that reason, the report offers tools and guidelines agencies can use to evaluate performance. These include an organizational readiness checklist, an overview of different working arrangements, and a telework suitability tool that managers can use. It asks questions like: 

  • Does the employee’s position require face-to-face interaction? 
  • Does the employee’s position require certain equipment or have security requirements that may limit the ability to work remotely? 
  • Do you have concerns with the employee’s workspace at home, their communication skills, or their ability to work independently? 

None of the tools or recommendations in the report eliminate the chance of unfair implementation or other challenges. But they offer a useful starting point for fleshing out some of the details, introducing accountability, and making refinements over time. 

Before even making the move to more flexible schedules, however, agencies must decide where and when they are appropriate. According to the report, four main considerations are: 1) the organizational context, 2) the context of specific tasks that employees are responsible for, 3) characteristics of an individual employee, and 4) characteristics of the employee’s home context.  

For large transportation agencies, the decision could be even more complex. Remote work can lead to people living further from major job centers, where they might drive less during busy periods, but drive more overall. This makes the potential long-term impacts of remote work important to consider, especially in states with ambitious climate goals, like California and Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington. 

Photo Credit: Simon Abrams via Unsplash, unmodified. License.