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Popularity of remote work by Kansas executive branch employees raises interest in policy reform


Popularity of remote work by Kansas executive branch employees raises interest in policy reform

Sep 23, 2023 | 12:01 pm ET
By Tim Carpenter
Popularity of remote work by Kansas executive branch employees raises interest in policy reform
Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said a state audit showing 30% of 18,000 executive branch employees were working remotely in April illustrated why state policy should reflect evolving sentiment about being anchored to the office of a state agency, board or commission. Other state legislators raised concerns about worker productivity, IT security and vacant office space. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Two-thirds of employees in the Kansas Department of Revenue and the Kansas treasurer’s office, and all state workers with the Kansas Sentencing Commission and Kansas Water Office, were working remotely when state auditors took a snapshot in April of the prevalence of work-at-home programs in the executive branch.

Other state government agencies, such as the Kansas Department of Corrections and Osawatomie State Hospital, made little or no use of policies allowing staff to avoid the office.

No state law in Kansas governs decisions about working from home among 18,000 employees scattered among 81 state executive branch agencies, boards or commissions. Under Kansas law, supervisors of these divisions of state government have discretion to create their own work-from-home policy.

The auditing division of the Kansas Legislature produced the report indicating 5,500 or 30% of these state employees worked from home during all or part of April. An additional 15% of the state employees, or 2,500 people, could potentially have done so based on existing agency policy.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said the audit pointed to the reality of Kansans making job decisions based on availability of work-at-home options. Some state jobs were better suited for work at home than others, but he said potential and existing employees were making home-or-office calculations based on family needs and personal dynamics.

“I think the era of saying, ‘You’re going to do this or else’ is probably over and we would all be wise to recognize that,” Probst said. “I do think information like this is useful as we develop policy because I think a lot of us have … somewhat antiquated ideas about how work ought to work and we probably ought to get our policies in line with what the employee expectations are.”

Staff cohesion?

Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, said it might make sense to require state employees to be in the office a couple days each week to promote development and maintenance of a cohesive staff culture.

“One of the things I hear often, recently, is that working from home is a great benefit. It can be done effectively, but you also have to have that connectedness with the organization. Kind of a team-building type of thing,” Francis said.

The legislative audit said permanent work-from-home options could help some state agencies hire and retain staff. Auditors said the influence of remote work assignments on staff productivity was difficult to assess due to lack of universal productivity measures from office to office. Auditors said their analysis didn’t offer clear evidence working from home negatively impacted productivity of executive branch employees.

Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican who chairs the joint House and Senate audit committee, said anecdotal conversations with business executives suggested worker productivity could be sustained temporarily when people were allowed to work remotely. Maintaining productivity in the long term appeared to be a challenge, he said.

“The working from home worked really well at first, but then people kind of got complacent and got used to doing other things than their job,” Tarwater said. “They’re less productive and they’re doing everything they can to bring them back into the office.”

He said it was difficult for private-sector employers to convince workers to return to central offices once they were accustomed to the flexibility of operating out a home.

Auditors concluded complying with home-office technology needs of employees could lead to additional expenditures by the state. In addition, some legislators shared concern about possible IT security issues with thousands of state employees on remote assignments.

Additional cost to the state could be offset by reducing government demand for office space, auditors said, based on experience of states that implemented broader working-at-home policies.

Accountability issues

According to the audit, 1,900 of 2,200 employees at the Kansas Department for Children and Families were working out of their residence rather than an office this spring. Other evidence of the same trend: Kansas Department of Revenue, 670 of 1,100 worked at home; Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 800 of 1,500 were stationed at home; and Kansas Department of Labor, 260 of 400 were at home.

“Almost every one of these I’ve had constituent problems and they cannot get ahold of people,” said Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican. “I have no problem with people telecommuting, but we have to make sure that they are available and doing their jobs. My concern is we don’t have the ability or the knowledge to manage remote workers.”

Janet Stanek, secretary of KDHE, said that when she was appointed to lead the agency the nation was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency placed “great effort” in developing and implementing strategies to get telephones answered when an out-of-office employees were occupied, she said.

The pandemic allowed more Kansans to embrace the idea of working from home and employers have had to rethink expectations regarding their staff, said Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican. In terms of executive branch workers assigned remotely, he said, “caution is of paramount importance.”

“There’s so many more people who now believe that, you know, they want to work from home because they can work in their pajamas until 1 in the afternoon and then run out to the grocery store,” Thompson said. “Then, it gets very, very difficult to bring them back into the office.”