The pandemic has accelerated teleworking in the public sector—but with inadequate planning have come mixed results.
Teleworking was growing constantly before the pandemic, albeit as an occasional employment model mainly involving the self-employed and information and communication technology services. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, however, teleworking has affected millions of employees in the European Union and worldwide, overcoming cultural and technological barriers.
Traditionally, the public sector has followed the private sector in providing flexible forms of employment. But government mandates to prevent the spread of new infections have forced the public sector to adapt rapidly and allow employees to work from home for the first time. This has made the transition challenging, in the absence of adequate planning.
The nature of certain occupations makes it difficult or impossible to apply teleworking. And there are specific difficulties in the public sector, concerning security, infrastructure, technological illiteracy and the legal framework.
The changes which have taken place have thus been accompanied by several problems. Many organisations did not have adequate structures to adopt teleworking and encountered technical issues. Some public officials considered the flexibility offered to be in their favour, reporting better performance, enhanced morale and lower stress. Many however found it difficult to juggle their professional and personal lives, felt socially isolated and did not possess the necessary materials to carry out their assignments.
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Hence the effects of teleworking are ambiguous, with positive and negative results reported. According to one view, teleworking can have positive effects on work autonomy and productivity, contributes to the reduction of commuting time, positively affects the balance between professional and personal life of employees and remains a way of reducing costs. It is widely claimed that increased job satisfaction and motivation, broader autonomy and better reconciliation of personal, family and professional life may follow.
On the other hand, teleworking can have negative effects on stress, with the blurring of boundaries between work and private life. Job commitment and satisfaction can be diminished by fewer social interactions. Problems related to the performance of overtime and the ‘right to disconnect’ are also reported.
Even before the pandemic, a dynamic towards teleworking in the public sector had become apparent in recent years. Digitalisation has been a one-way street for governments, allowing as it has personalised services, support for high-volume requests, digital processing, faster service delivery, reduced workload, interoperability of services and continuity over time. In addition, teleworking is seen as an effective and sustainable way to reduce carbon emissions.
On a wider canvas, the flexibility of working conditions has accelerated in recent decades. In the public sector, this is due in part to the need for higher productivity and improved efficiency as well as spatial and temporal flexibility for staff to balance work and personal requirements. The increase is also due to social issues, such as the pollution in large cities which is being addressed by reduced mobility, and the need for wider participation in the labour market.
The transition to teleworking is however more complex for organisations which do not have the ICT infrastructure and prior experience. It is about reorganising work and so implies change to rules and management practices.
To what extent will teleworking continue and even become the ‘new normal’ in the public sector? Researchers anticipate that it will remain for the long term, as the experience of the pandemic has made us all rethink how we live and work, with new solutions arising based on digital options.
Public-sector organisations which have implemented teleworking have reported plans to consolidate it after the pandemic. But first three critical questions need to be answered. Can a job be performed at the equivalent level of service, remotely as in the office? Are teleworking policies easy for employees to follow? And how is productivity to be measured?
If teleworking then remains an option, an adequate regulatory framework to provide employees with access to reliable ICT infrastructure is required. It is also necessary to make additional investments, overcome cultural and legal obstacles, mitigate possible side-effects and formulate a remote-working strategy.
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Before the pandemic, there were signs of resistance to teleworking, because of concerns about technology and compliance with employment regulations. Once the crisis is over, factors encouraging such resistance may reappear. Researchers thus propose a ‘radical’ approach to integrating teleworking in the public sector, as the pandemic may not in and of itself be the catalyst for long-term changes in working arrangements.
Teleworking can improve efficiency by increasing employee satisfaction and helping to reduce costs. But face-to-face meetings do allow for more effective communication and lack of personal interaction can reduce knowledge flows among employees and hinder administrative oversight.
Introducing and sustaining effective teleworking thus requires tackling potential resistance, addressing data-security concerns and privacy issues, providing appropriate IT tools, eliminating paper-based processes, training employees and establishing health-and-safety guidelines. There should be clear and transparent working conditions, as a way of working adapted to the needs of the employee emerges. Workflows need to be adjusted and use of adaptive workplaces considered, so that employees can work where they are most productive and dedicated.
Georgios Nasios has a PhD in labour relations from Panteion University. His research interests focus on flexible forms of employment in the public sector and the convergence of public- and private-sector labour relations.