By MRU Prof. Andrius Stasiukynas
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads throughout the world, and taking into account recommendations to isolate and work remotely, more and more firms and companies are organizing work from home. Public sector institutions are no exception. Even in areas of public services, where up to now it was traditionally thought that it is necessary that there be direct contact between service providers and the user (for example schools, universities etc.) and using information technologies, there is a transitioning to working remotely. It is somewhat simpler for public administration institutions, where direct contact with inhabitants has already been changed with the help of E-government.
However, how flexible is the public sector and civil servants providing such services to effectively work remotely? In the public sphere there is much written about working remotely, and its benefits and drawbacks. There are efforts to evaluate its productiveness. There is no one answer, nor can there be – it depends on the type of work and other factors.
There have been various studies that reveal the benefits of working remotely. In these studies, public servants note that working remotely has benefits when undertaking tasks when it is important to collect one’s thoughts. Also, when there is a need to concentrate on the task without being interrupted by telephones, e-mails or colleagues wanting, for example, a written report.
Often a Chinese call center’s experiment is cited regarding the effectiveness of working remotely. Several years ago when a call center (specializing in sales) in China organized employee work from home, effectiveness increased by 13%. There are other benefits. It was noticed that traveling to the office requires additional resources of energy and time and is sometimes filled with stress, due to traffic jams. These personal resources could be better used to perform the tasks at hand.
The possibility to work from home, as an additional benefit, could also be useful to the employer when choosing potential candidates and seeking to attract elderly employees, parents raising small children or potential employees who live far from the workplace. Researchers, studying modern forms of work organization, also note the possible risks associated with organizing such work.
Using informational technologies, it is possible to communicate, organize virtual meetings, however the effectiveness of such meetings is much less compared with a ‘live’ meeting. Even in face-to-face meetings there is a risk that a participant in the meeting will not become involved and there are many management methods to control this risk. Working remotely this risk only grows and the ability to control what a person is doing when connected is limited, despite the fact that there are many means to manage such virtual meetings.
Also, team work at times requires to quickly resolve non-standard situations, where synchronized solutions are necessary. Writing e-mails or calling would require additional time, when every second is important – for example in the case of the work of airport dispatchers or those at an atomic nuclear plant.
Overall, we can find many arguments in research that “live” cooperation amongst colleagues and exchange of information is important when seeking to encourage creativity and non-traditional solutions.
The aforementioned experiment in China discussed by Stanford University academics (2014) stipulates that effectiveness when working remotely can be achieved when there are clear tasks enunciated and the conditions for activities are clearly set.
For many decades IBM applied the practice of working remotely and was an example for others, Google and other similar companies. Now they are returning to work in the office. However, there is the possibility to undertake a flexible form of work. The change in IBM work organization is based on continuous changes in the activity environment which requires non-standard resolutions and seeking more creativity from its employees. Such creativity is strengthened by personal contacts and the continuous exchange of ideas.
As for those persons working in the civil service, their identity with the service itself and with the represented institution, is very important. Identifying with an organization, its goals and the team is more effectively formed through live contact rather than working remotely.
So, it is apparent that working remotely has many benefits. It’s developing in public institutions and the entire public sector, but it is important to remember the risks involved, which must be controlled. Overall, it is thought that 20-25 percent of work in the future will be organized remotely and therefore more flexibility will be sought. Also, other modern work forms will be implemented. These changes will be encouraged by the overall work from home tendency due to the coronavirus outbreak.
It is thought that even after the quarantine period ends, the view towards work organization in institutions of public administration and the entire public sector will change and there will be more use of informational technologies. However, it is necessary to note that in order for these innovations to bear the necessary result, so as not to be just a ‘fashionable’ idea or an ‘extraordinary situation,’ that any changes in work organization, and the risks connected, should be properly evaluated. There should be plenty of attention to employee training and to overseeing the implementation of the process.
Andrius Stasiukynas is a professor at Mykolas Romeris University’s Public Governance Faculty. This article was published in the online news portal 15min.lt