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A State Makes a Big Bet on Telework

State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Utah

State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Utah Shutterstock/Francesco Dazzi

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Utah expands a pilot program to 2,500 jobs.

After finding that state employees who volunteered to work from home were more productive than their counterparts who worked in state office buildings, Utah plans to extend telework options to more departments.

Over the next 18 months, Utah will expand its initial pilot program involving 136 workers to about 2,500 jobs, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who led the initiative for Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration. Both Cox and Herbert are Republicans.

Before the pilot, which launched in September 2018, Cox said there was one state department that offered teleworking. The initial program expanded that option to four agencies, with the new push eventually adding many more.

During the test run, employees—who worked in customer service, accounting, procurement and other jobs—had to commit to working three days from home, with shared work spaces set up in agency offices for those who needed to come in one or two days a week. At home, employees needed to have a work space that wasn’t just sitting on the couch with a laptop, Cox said. The state also needed to make sure the teleworkers had fast enough home internet service.

In the end, Cox said most participants had a positive reaction, and the state found that the remote workers were 22 percent more productive than their peers still in the office.

“They were happier,” Cox said, adding that the state saw benefits from reducing commuters on the road. “We were taking carbon out of the air and emissions out of the air.”

The push to encourage more telework in Utah government began with Cox’s focus on economic development in rural parts of the state. One idea, he said, was to convince private industry, particularly in the technology sector, to embrace hiring people in rural parts of the state to work from home.

But when Cox approached leaders of Utah’s growing tech industry, he said they were hesitant about hiring teleworkers. So, he and others decided the state should test out telework with some of its 22,000 employees.

“Then we can show some of our counterparts and some of our tech companies this is the real option,” Cox said.

In the most recent survey of state workers by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, 46 percent said there was some availability to telework at their agencies. Working from home was a less popular offering than flexible work hours, which 78 percent of respondents said was an option.

Governing last year reported that 6,000 state employees in Tennessee—considered a leader in states offering telework options—had decided to work from home. A state official told the magazine 27,000 of the executive branch’s 38,000 employees could eventually have the option.

Cox said expanding telework could improve retention, as the surveys of pilot program participants found that about 50 employees who had been looking to move on from state government instead decided to stay. “With low unemployment it is hard for us to compete for employees across the state. That was really big for us,” he said.

Laura Maggi is the Managing Editor of Route Fifty.

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