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How Does State Monitor Workers Since Shift to Telework?

The future of remote state work is taking shape as departments hammer out permanent policies and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration negotiates with unions. But how much will workers be monitored at home?

Emily Phillips and her husband had just added a walk-in closet to their Elk Grove home when the coronavirus arrived 21 months ago. The world changed, and the couple quickly realized they wouldn’t need the variety of outfits hanging in the 15-by-8-foot space. So they replaced them with two desks, a printer, a filing cabinet and lots of plants. They gave the closet a new name: “the cloffice.”

“We’re pretty cramped in there,” said Phillips, 42, a manager in the contracts unit of the California Department of Justice. Like everyone, she’s adapting to a new normal. The pandemic-induced transition to telework ushered in the biggest change to California state employment in decades, where a “butts in seats” office culture long prevailed.

Now the future of remote state work is taking shape as departments hammer out permanent policies and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration negotiates agreements with unions. With only general guidance from the administration, many of the specifics are in the hands of department directors, supervisors and managers. They’ll decide whether state office culture will follow employees to their homes — where some bosses have already found the digital equivalents of peeking over workers’ shoulders — or whether deeper changes will take place. Phillips said she expects full-time remote work to remain an option indefinitely in her office. She said the successful transition has been supported by trust between employees and managers, new electronic paperwork capabilities and easily measurable output in executed contracts.

Most importantly, she said, telework has been encouraged by a supportive operations chief.

“Our chief really wants to focus on the output rather than what people are doing minute to minute,” she said.

That’s not the case everywhere. Many state employees will have to spend two or three days each week in the office, even if they can do all their work from home. Several told The Sacramento Bee they’re annoyed with new requirements such as morning and afternoon check-in emails and expectations that they stay available in workplace communication programs such as Microsoft Teams. One department sent an email advising employees that their home offices could be subject to inspection by supervisors.

“I am an associate level analyst who is more than capable of managing my time and holding myself accountable not only for completing tasks, but also working a full day,” said a Department of Social Services analyst who requested anonymity to discuss state working conditions. “The (new) ‘requirements’ make me feel like I’m in high school again.”

In the private sector, where change tends to move faster than in government, many employers are intensively monitoring remote workers. Popular new software products offer to record employees’ keystrokes, capture images of their laptop screens and even to let bosses remotely access their webcams.

Representatives from 11 of the largest California state departments with telework-eligible employees said they use none or few of those capabilities. But as the monitoring software proliferates, departments face consequential decisions about where to draw the line on remote surveillance, experts said.

“It’s our duty to taxpayers to make sure that people are working, but you shouldn’t need to spy on them to know they’re working,” said Kate Lister, president of San Diego-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. “Are they doing their job or not doing their job? If they are, it shouldn’t matter when or where they do it.”

In general, most teleworkers have been as productive as they were in the office, said Brian Kropp, chief of research at Connecticut-based human resources company Gartner. Yet, Kropp said, “there’s still this strong belief among executives that people who are working remote aren’t working as much.” The result has been the boom in monitoring software, he said. Three months ago, PC Magazine rated 10 employee monitoring programs, awarding its Editor’s Choice award to one capable of “screen recordings, live views of employee PCs, tracking emails and keystrokes, all the way to Zoom sessions.”

In emails to The Bee, seven of 11 large California state departments with significant numbers of telework-eligible employees said they don’t record keystrokes, take screenshots, provide live views of employees’ screens, record conversations, record voicemails or allow a supervisor to see the view from an employee’s webcam. The departments are the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Social Services, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of State Hospitals, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the State Compensation Insurance Fund.

Spokespeople from the remaining four departments said they use monitoring tools in limited ways.

At the DMV, some call center employees’ conversations with customers are recorded, said spokeswoman Anita Gore. Managers review two calls or screen recordings per agent each month, Gore said, and if teleworking employees fall short of standards they can be called back to the office until they improve.

At the Franchise Tax Board, where employees who handle sensitive financial information have always faced extra scrutiny, employees are advised their work devices may be monitored, spokeswoman Victoria Ramirez said in an email.

The California Highway Patrol doesn’t use the monitoring tools as a “matter of routine,” spokeswoman Fran Clader said. But, in some positions, “daily productivity is compiled alongside others, such as software programmers,” Clader said.

Employment Development Department employees may be monitored, spokeswoman Loree Levy said in an email.

“All staff must use an EDD computer when performing EDD duties and those activities can be monitored,” Levy said in the email. “Management has information about logging into state systems and telephone activity.”

In general, employees should expect little privacy on state-owned work devices. It also doesn’t take much to sign away privacy on a personal device used for work purposes, two attorneys said.

“It’s very typical for a work computer to have a message that comes on and says, ‘These systems are monitored, you have no expectation of privacy, you have to press accept to get on,’” said Dana Howells, an attorney focusing on employment and privacy law for Los Angeles-based firm Seyfarth Shaw. Some employees are worried about their employer coming into their home. The Department of Health Care Services’ emergency telework agreement warns that since employees’ home offices are technically state work sites, the department reserves the right to inspect employees’ work areas. The policy says the department would give 48 hours’ notice before sending an employee to do an inspection. Spokeswoman Carol Sloan said the department hasn’t yet sent an inspector to anyone’s home. Sloan said the department would do so if there were “concerns about failure to meet safety protocols related to the alternate work location.”

One of the most prominent champions of results-focused remote work is Jody Thompson, who trademarked a program called Results-Only Work Environment. “In the future of work, which is the results-only work environment, there’s no label,” Thompson said. “There’s no ‘you’re a remote worker, you’re an office worker, you’re a teleworker.’ All it is, is the work, period.”

The federal government turned to Thompson’s program for a high-profile experiment at the Office of Personnel Management 11 years ago. “Snowmageddon” had recently shut down the federal government in Washington, D.C., and former President Barack Obama said he wanted to avoid another shutdown, partly by enabling remote work. The effort had big ambitions: It was supposed to make the federal government the “model employer for the 21st century” and make “government cool again,” said John Berry, the office’s director at the time, according to The Washington Post.

The office allowed about 400 employees to work wherever, whenever they wanted for a year starting in 2010. The pilot wasn’t expanded. A review by consultant Deloitte found that while employee satisfaction improved along with managers’ assessments of their work, the experiment was hobbled by unclear objectives, a lack of good metrics and practical problems such as managers not knowing which employees they could call at any given time. Productivity gains were uneven.

According to Deloitte, the most productive employees became considerably more efficient, while less productive employees barely improved. Lister said the federal government could not fire underperforming workers, dragging down the experiment.

“One of the hallmarks of when a company switches to managing by results versus managing by ‘butts in seats’ is that voluntary turnover goes down — people quit less — and involuntary turnover — people get fired — goes up,” Lister said. “And it’s because the slackers have nowhere to hide.”

So far, smaller California state departments have been more willing to allow permanent telework than the larger ones, which have been gravitating toward 50-50 schedules in which employees must spend half their time in the office. The Franchise Tax Board, for instance, recently told employees they would be allowed to spend only half their time working remotely once offices reopen.

Several large departments are introducing more flexibility around start and stop times while aiming to hold remote workers to the same standards as in the office, department representatives said in emails. Lister, the Global Workplace Analytics president, said successful remote work programs depend on trust and a focus on results over things like hours logged or keystrokes entered.

“The basis of a good remote work program, or any kind of remote management, is that there’s trust, and that people are being measured in a way that’s meaningful against the goals they have,” said Lister.

Several state employees told The Bee they are working under conditions similar to those Lister described, with a high degree of autonomy so long as they get their work done. “I am a state worker permanently remote working now and loving it,” said a California Energy Commission employee who requested anonymity. “My boss only requires us to have a report of what we worked on and how long tasks took to equal 40 hours.”

Phillips, the Department of Justice contract manager, said just two of the 13 people who work under her supervision said they would prefer a hybrid work schedule. In a poll, the other 11 said they preferred full-time telework. One of her employees, who she said was always a good worker, became even more productive while working remotely.

“Everyone has a better work-life balance,” she said. As for her, she likes to go to the office two days a week for the change in perspective. She plans to keep doing so, and on the days she works in the closet, to keep using noise-canceling headphones.

©2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.