Since COVID-19 hit, the large scale shift to “WFH” / “Remote work” has changed the economies of many jurisdictions (in good and not-so-good ways). This shift is now getting lots of media coverage, which is new – even though dealing with these changing economic realities for jurisdictions is not new.
Traditional Economic Development is when you give incentives to corporations so they will relocate to your jurisdiction and bring jobs with them. While this worked well in the past, it has become less and less effective over the last few decades. The last few years have rapidly accelerated this trend. Large corporations know how valuable they are, so now jurisdictions have to bid against each other to attract the relocating corporation with larger and larger incentives (usually money or money-like tax breaks). And when one corporation employs the majority of the workforce in your jurisdiction, everyone is impacted if that corporation is lured away elsewhere. Changes in social contract and corporate tax handling further complicate this situation.
What if there was another way? What if you gave incentives to humans not corporations?
I asked this question during testimony sessions with the State of Vermont Senate in 2017 and 2018 as we worked towards what became Vermont’s “Remote Worker” Law. After this bill was signed into law in June 2018, it was wildly successful, and this Distributed Economic Development model is now being used by multiple jurisdictions in the US and internationally.
As more people work in Distributed Teams, encouraging people to move to your jurisdiction, bringing their own *existing* job with them has become a popular alternative to Traditional Economic Development. This Distributed Economic Development has some significant benefits, but requires careful attention to many subtle details to succeed. I first described these details in my book “Distributed Teams” (2018, 2021) and this training video is another step to help jurisdictions do this well. After watching this video, if you still have any questions on how Distributed Economic Development would be helpful to your community or jurisdiction, please do let me know.
This training series includes other experienced long term “remote work” advocates and researchers like: Kate Lister, Rowena Hennigan, Pilar Orti and Lisette Sutherland. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed collaborating with each of these fine humans, so I recommend watching their videos (and listening to their podcasts) too!
Lastly, I want to thank Nacho Rodríguez, Aaron Bolzle and Gonçalo Hall for the many brainstorming sessions and lively discussions over the years. And of course, special thanks go to Rowena Hennigan and Gal Lahav for creating the vision for this entire video series before COVID-19 hit in early 2020 and having the tenacity to make this vision become reality despite the turbulence of the last few years.
The US Federal Government is the largest employer in the United States of America, and is hiring. Did you know they have 563 “remote” job vacancies open right now?
If you are looking for work that matters – or eager to help improve a government service you personally care deeply about – have a look. Here are (in no particular order) some examples of “remote” job vacancies that caught my eye:
For the full list of today’s “remote” vacancies, click here. To apply, you’ll need to create a free account for yourself on usajobs.gov. And if none of those 563 “remote” jobs interest you, just setup a recurring saved search so you get automatic daily/weekly emails as new “remote” job vacancies become available.
It’s no secret that the US Federal Government is the largest employer in the United States of America. It’s also no secret that they are hiring. But did you know they have 529 “remote” job vacancies open right now?
If you are looking for work that matters – or eager to improve a government service you personally care deeply about – have a look at some examples that caught my eye (in no particular order):
For the full list of today’s 529 vacancies, click here. Or of course, create a free account for yourself on usajobs.gov, with a recurring saved search so you get automatic daily/weekly emails on “remote” jobs as they become available.
Since then, Department of General Services (DGS) has continued working with different departments across the State of California to include their telework data into this award winning dashboard. And they’ve made impressive progress.
In March 2021, this dashboard showed real-time telework information from 12 agencies with a combined total of ~11,244 humans. Today, ~18 months later, this dashboard now shows real-time telework information from 99 agencies with a combined total of ~133,045 humans. With more still being added!
How telework combats climate change
This dashboard clearly shows the scale of the benefits of changing commute patterns using widespread, long-term telework. Because these 99 agencies are allowing employees to work from home, we can see that these agencies have reduced collective carbon emissions by 15,434 metric tons during the month of October.
I still find it hard to understand a metric ton of CO2, so to get a sense of the scale of this impact, I turn again to CarbonFootprint.com. They calculate that flying a plane nonstop from San Francisco to Washington DC, land and then fly nonstop back to San Francisco generates 1.10 metric tons of CO2 emissions — the pollution that contributes to the problem of climate change. The 133,045 humans at these agencies who “worked remotely” some (or all) of October 2022 reduced the carbon footprint of their combined commutes by the same amount as NOT making 13,421 round-trip flights between San Francisco and Washington DC, In just the month of October alone.
Or to phrase it another way: canceling this telework policy and requiring all staff at all these agencies to commute daily to their offices would add the same carbon emissions as a policy decision to fly 13,421 nonstop flights from San Francisco to Washington DC and back during the month of October. That’s a new round-trip flight taking off from San Francisco every three minutes — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the entire month of October.
Setting the standard for a cleaner future
Looking at just this one aspect of the potential environmental benefits of long-term telework can help inform next steps for government agencies who are thinking about their “telework” policies post-COVID. These 99 agencies are tackling hard climate change problems by:
Focusing on the largest segment of emissions in the state (commuter traffic pollution according to the California Air Resource Board), then measurably reducing those emissions today by eliminating the need for staff to commute daily from home to the office and back home again.
Empowering staff to work effectively and securely from their homes, using modern, consumer-grade technology.
Automatically and publicly tracking the impact of these actions in order to make informed policy decisions for the future.
The California agencies contributing data to the live dashboard are showing admirable leadership in tracking the potential benefits of long-term telework at scale in the public sector and I get more delighted by the results as this work continues to scale. These forward-thinking policies, along with the easily digestible info on the dashboard, are a powerful combination, with timely data helping inform smarter decisions and supporting a cleaner future for the government workforce. Thank you (again) to Andrew Sturmfels, Ann Baaten, Gary Renslo, Stuart Drown and many many others for their continued hard work scaling this dashboard.
1) Organization vs individual: There are many ways for an individual to track the climate impact of their commute; mileage reports when buying a car, emissions impact from driving vs taking public transit, emissions impact from flights, etc. This puts all the responsibility for action onto the individual human – who may have limited choices depending on their role and the employer’s telework/”remote work” policies. California’s telework dashboard measures the climate impact of an entire organization’s commuting staff and helps inform organizational leadership on whether their organization’s “telework” / “remote work” policies are effective. As far as I know, this is the first dashboard tracking organizational-level commute savings.
2) Annual reports vs live data: Typically in government, people track progress by writing annual reports. These reports take time to write, time to proof-check for errors, time to print (on paper!) and distribute – and finally time to read. Given the weeks of work involved, writing these reports once a year is hard enough. However, these delays add up – making annual reports far less actionable. By contrast, the DGS telework dashboard uses real-world data updated each week. This live data, updated every week, helps leadership track the effectiveness of decisions made in recent weeks, and help make more informed decisions. This is a great example of measure what matters. Oh, and it’s also public.
Congrats to Andrew Sturmfels, Ann Baaten, Gary Renslo, Stuart Drown and many many others for all the hard work leading up to making this live tracking dashboard a reality. The award is well deserved. With any luck, the first of many awards for this innovative work!
Exciting news! The State of California just publicly released their new telework policy which is strategically important in tackling the hard problems of workforce hiring/diversity/retention, climate change, disaster planning and distributed economic development. This is the first major update to the telework policy in 10 years, and I’m delighted to have been one-of-many who helped make this happen.
Here’s a detailed interview I did which went live yesterday as the headline on GovReport.org.
In summary, the four biggest highlights are:
Diversity: Long-term wide-spread telework helps remove the barrier of the commute, which helps with many workforce diversity, equity, hiring and retention issues. This new policy signals a mindset shift from “emergency-telework-at-scale-because-of-COVID-19” to “long-term wide-spread telework as part of normal business going forward”.
Climate: Instead of manually-written-annual reports, this emphasizes the use of an automated dashboard with live data. Being able to see the reductions in commuter traffic emissions based on live week-by-week data is inspiring. You can view the live dashboard here. As far as I know, this is the first live dashboard publicly measuring how *organizational leaders* can help reduce the commuter emissions of their own staff.
Long-term Disaster Planning / Continuity of Operations: Did you know the State of California was running its first large-scale telework pilot experiment in 1989-1990, when the 1989 earthquake hit? That large scale real-life experiment measurably confirmed how valuable “telework” was for resilience of government operations and the State of California has supported telework ever since. However, even earthquakes and wildfires usually only close offices for a month-or-two. As far as I know, the last ~19 months has been the longest period of office closures and restricted access in the history of the state. The difference between short-term disaster planning (which is common) and long-term disaster planning (which was all-too-rare) is important. People need government services to keep working, even when a government employee/contractor cannot enter a government building. This new policy shifts default assumptions, clarifies equipment policies, digital signature policies and many many other tactical details to help ensure long-term continuity of operations.
Scale: The State of California directly employs ~239,000 people, plus additional contractors, so this policy touches a *lot* of people across California. These people work on a (very!) wide range of roles across all parts of state government, so there are a lot of complex edge cases to account for. At this scale, this policy also helps with distributed economic development across California.
You can read the full text of California’s new policy here, along with guidance, training materials, and the live telework dashboard.
Thank you to Andrew, Ann, Gary, Stuart and the many other people who worked on making this a reality. As we emerge from this pandemic, this policy is an important and practical step towards creating this new future of work.
How California agencies are tracking reduced carbon emissions from their remote-friendly workforce policies
Six months ago, the State of California’s Department of General Services (DGS) created a live public dashboard tracking their agency’s widespread use of telework, partially spurred by office closings in response to the pandemic. DGS saw an opportunity to use these metrics to inform a longer-term strategy around remote work for the state, and started working to include live data from other agencies on the same dashboard. This dashboard now shows real-time telework information from twelve agencies across the State of California, with more being added!
How telework combats climate change
This dashboard clearly shows the scale of the benefits of changing commute patterns using widespread, long-term telework. Because these twelve agencies are allowing employees to work from home, we can see that these agencies have reduced collective carbon emissions by 521 metric tons . . . last week alone.
To understand what a metric ton is, and get a sense of the scale of this impact, I turned to CarbonFootprint.com. They calculate that flying nonstop from San Francisco to New York City and back to San Francisco generates 1.15 metric tons of carbon emissions — the pollution that contributes to the problem of climate change. The 9,093 humans at these agencies who “worked remotely” at least some of last week reduced their combined carbon footprint by the same amount as NOT making 453 round-trip flights between San Francisco and New York City, in just one week.
Or to phrase it another way: canceling this telework policy and requiring all staff at these agencies to commute daily to their offices would add the same carbon emissions as a policy decision to start flying 453 planes each week from San Francisco to New York City and back. That’s a new round-trip flight taking off from San Francisco every twenty-two minutes — 24 hours a day for an entire 7 day week.
Setting the standard for a cleaner future
Looking at just this one aspect of the potential environmental benefits of long-term telework can help inform next steps for government agencies who are thinking about their policies post-COVID. These twelve agencies are tackling hard climate change problems by:
Focusing on the largest segment of emissions in the state (commuter traffic pollution) according to the California Air Resource Board – then measurably reducing those emissions by eliminating the need for staff to commute daily from home to the office and back home again.
Empowering staff to work effectively and securely from their homes, using modern, consumer-grade technology.
Automatically and publicly tracking the impact of these actions in order to make more informed policy decisions for the future.
The California agencies contributing data to the live dashboard are showing admirable leadership in tracking the potential benefits of long-term telework at scale in the public sector and I’m delighted by the results of this work so far.
These forward-thinking policies, along with the easily digestible info on the dashboard, are a powerful combination, showing a cleaner, smarter future for the government workforce.
I’m delighted that the 2nd edition of my book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart” is now officially published. It’s already available on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle formats), Barnes&Noble nook and over the coming days will soon be available in physical bookstores, libraries, Apple Books and Chapter’s kobo.
I have plenty of half-read management books, so wrote this edition (like the previous one) for people who need practical answers to hard questions – and don’t have time to read a weighty management book. Each chapter is short with takeaways – most are ~8-10 pages. Each chapter is standalone, so you can jump in to solve a current need, then put it down and come back to read another chapter later. The book is written using only short words – no management speak – so it’s easy to read when tired or in a rush. The book is:
one third practical mechanics (video etiquette, group chat, handling email, meeting etiquette, etc)
one third human topics (hiring, firing, team culture, dealing with conflict, trust, etc) and
one third wider social topics (diversity, urban planning, environment, disaster resilience, economic development, etc).
So, in case you already have the 1st edition, whats new in this 2nd edition? Lots! Here are some highlights:
1) Team Culture, Isolation and Burnout: Many best practices from the 1st edition still apply, but I’ve also added a bunch of new-during-covid tips for mental sanity, keeping work/life balance and avoiding burnout. Also tips for fostering team culture and holding virtual group gatherings when “inperson team offsites” are not possible.
2) Offices: Should you ever go back to an office? As people start thinking about “life after COVID-19”, this question comes up often. The last ~10 months of working from home during pandemics, economic disruption, office closures and school closures have obviously been stressful, so the appeal of “going back to the office” makes sense. It is at least in part about humans wanting social interaction with coworkers and going back to “life before COVID-19”. I outline the various pros/cons I’ve been advising company and government agency leaders on. Teaser: most are surprised by how this decision impacts their ability to hire a diverse workforce.
3) Climate: I’ve been helping the State of California with their new telework policy. Instead of the usual short-term, limited-approval-to-use telework policy, this is a long-term, widespread, telework policy. This has important consequences for workforce diversity as well as long-term disaster-planning. As part of this work, we created an automated public dashboard to measure telework rates as well as the carbon-reduction impact of this telework policy. This is the first automated dashboard (not a manual annual report) tracking telework in government that I know of, so I describe how we did it and why thats strategically important.
4) Economic Development: I helped write Vermont’s Remote Worker law (2018) which was signed into law just before the 1st edition of my book was published. This economic development initiative was an out-of-the-park success, so now other jurisdictions are starting to follow this model. I describe the important parts that make Distributed Economic Development long term successful – not just as a short-term fad during COVID-19. (This is also something I’d love to see others do, so if you are interested in doing this for your jurisdiction, email me.)
5) And of course, in context of COVID-19, I also did small nip-and-tuck edits across literally every chapter.
I hope you find this book practical and immediately useful. Please let me know what you think!
I recently had some post-deadline quiet time to catchup on some unread books.
In-person discussions with Cyd Harrell have always been insightful, so at a slim 167 pages, I thought this book would be a quick and informative read. After the first few pages, I had to stop, go grab a highlighter and start again with a fresh mug of coffee.
After every few pages of careful reading, I found myself needing to stop and mentally chew over what I just learned. Then eagerly dive back in again later that day to learn something else. I know it sounds odd to describe it as a real page-turner, but… it is!
The book is well structured, with great topics. The writing is incredibly clear and concise. The signal-to-noise ratio is fantastic. I’ve now read this book cover to cover. Twice. And jumped back/forth to re-read specific parts a few more times. Just about every page now has some highlighted text.
The book covers a wide range of topics including: logistics of migrating technically complex legacy systems, fostering allies, privilege and diversity, open data, mental self-care and burnout under prolonged stress. This is a powerful, powerful book. My only regret is that this didn’t exist before my first tour in government in US Digital Service in 2016.
If you are working in, or considering working in, large scale projects–in government or any other large mission-critical environment–you need to read this. And thank you, Cyd for writing this.
Four big takeaways from my Little Hoover Commission testimony
Last month, Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics and I gave testimony to California’s Little Hoover Commission. This hearing was called by the Commission as part of their investigation into the reality of government agencies supporting “widespread long-term telework.” In other words, what if many of those who suddenly started working from home because of COVID-19 were to continue doing that permanently?
This two-hour hearing—officially titled “Public Hearing on Transitioning State Government Workforce to Permanent Remote Work (Part 1)”—was broadcast live and the recording is available here.
It was a lively discussion, but before we dive into the top takeaways, it’s important to level-set.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: These are not normal times. Normal “working from home” is not the same as “working from home during a global pandemic.”
Even people who are used to working from home are stressed and disrupted by multiple issues that have nothing to do with work-style changes. Healthcare concerns for family members, school closures, economic woes, political discourse and civic unrest are just some examples.
Next, let’s talk about terminology. The phrase “telework” is usually associated with short duration telework, granted by exception as privilege to a select few. However, in this hearing, we’re talking about long-term, long duration telework — widespread by default, not by exception.
A common myth is that “work from home” can only be done with small teams and/or for short durations (days/weeks/month-or-two). Both Kate and I have personal experience of high functioning, physically distributed teams of more than 1,000+ people for multiple years — a few for over a decade.
Now that we’ve level-set, let’s dive into the four key takeaways.
Routine Telework Improves Disaster Planning
Short term disaster plans are common for dealing with short-term disasters, like power outages, fires, and bad storms. When there is short-term disruption for a day or two, people quickly catch up with work after they get back into the office.
Long term disaster planning requires being able to continue doing normal work from outside the office while the office remains closed for months. By contrast, you cannot “just catch up” after a multi-month office closure — you have to keep doing work even while the office remains closed.
Routine, recurring, widespread “telework” lets you rehearse and improve your long term disaster planning by:
finding hidden process weak-points that are location-specific
verifying that everyone knows how to do their work as part of an office-optional workforce
In fact, the State of California was running a telework efficiency experiment when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit. Those already comfortable working from home were able to resume working quickly after the earthquake. Others lacking equipment or training, were unable to start learning to start work from home, while already trapped at home. They remained unable to work until the offices, freeways and bridges were repaired and reopened.
People depend on government services to keep running without disruption, even when government employees cannot get into their usual office. We need fault tolerant government operations. A government building should not be a single point of failure for an agency.
Telework Fosters Diversity
The commute is a physical barrier for some. So, requiring people to commute to a physical building limits your ability to hire a diverse workforce. Conversely, removing that commute barrier improves your ability to hire diversely.
It’s worth noting that while “diversity” is often used in a racial or gender context, there are multiple other metrics of diversity. For example, there are those with varying abilities, including those who are blind, depend on wheelchairs, or veterans with PTSD, etc. There are 37M Americans with long-term disabilities, with 74% (29M) long-term unemployed. There are 4M Americans on the autism spectrum, with 85% unemployed for life.
Beyond that, there are many other groups who could benefit from government jobs that do not require reporting to a physical office. Those include:
Caregivers: 43% working mothers drop out of the workforce once they have children, according to Harvard Business Review. Others drop out to care for ill siblings or aging parents.
Military spouses: This segment often relocates as their families are restored, and therefore have an unemployment rate three times higher than the local unemployment rate. Military spouses with PhDs have a 16% unemployment rate.
Young professionals: In 2016, millennials became the largest segment of the US workforce. Sometime in 2020/2021, GenZ will become the second largest segment of the US workforce. These “digital natives” are comfortable and familiar with the modern digital tools needed for this form of work, and they expect to be changing jobs frequently throughout their career. These factors combined make them less likely to relocate for each new job. Typically, government employees are older, so as they approach retirement, hiring younger staff is a priority.
Telework is Good for the Environment
Climate change and carbon emissions are a concern. The California Air Resource Board tracks the sources of all emissions across California, and here is their latest data.
While there is lots of talk about reducing methane from livestock (5.4%), flight tax to offset aviation emissions (1.1%), I’d like to draw attention to passenger vehicles. At 28%, this is the largest source of emissions across the state.Most of these are from single-occupant vehicles commuting to/from work in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, which is the least efficient way to operate an internal combustion engine.
Agency leadership can help reduce the commuter carbon footprint of their agency by more widely encouraging telework policies.
The carbon footprint reductions from these telework policies can be measured and reported automatically. California’s Dept of General Services did this by creating a live dashboard https://telework.govops.ca.gov/tracking-telework/. Other agencies can do this, too.
Telework is Part of the New Social Contract:
The idea of a “job for life” is disappearing with Baby Boomers’ average 4.2 years per employer across all industries. The software industry average is now under two years.
There are a few main reasons top talent now wants and expects remote work:
Relocation pains: Shorter job tenures mean a new job is less incentive to relocate. Today’s talent would rather live where they want, and not have to worry about relocating every time they change jobs. Also, 35% of Americans have less than $400 in their bank account, so they cannot afford to relocate for a new job, even if they wanted to.
Dual-income families: According to the U.S. Dept of Labor, 61% of families are now dual-income families, and this trend is increasing. When both people are working, who gives up their job to relocate for their spouse’s new job — and can the trailing spouse find a similarly exciting new job in the new location?
Private industry trends: Distributed private companies have been have been working like this for decades— out-competing and out-hiring private co-located companies as well as co-located public sector organizations for decades. COVID-19 has accelerated this “long-term telework” trend into a fact of life for many.
Distributed teams require explicit leadership focus on topics like delegation of authority, trust, team cohesion, burnout and isolation. All things that have been advocated for in ROWE, MBO and other management methodologies.
Before COVID-19, this workforce trend was already happening, with physically distributed private companies out-hiring, out-retaining, out-competing and under-spending their co-located competitors. Since COVID-19, this trend to distributed teams has accelerated exponentially.
The generational changes, the social-contract “no more job for life” changes and now COVID-19 put us at a unique inflection point for our society. Encouraging a widespread telework policy will help government agencies tackle climate change measurably and immediately, not five to 10 years in the future. All while reducing costs, improving disaster resilience and improving workforce diversity.
Thank you, Little Hoover Commission, for inviting me to speak and for the lively Q+A.
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