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Headshot of author Karl UrbanDoes Remote Work Actually Work for APS?

by Karl Urban, APS TARC Team Member

“We constantly emphasize the idea that work is something you do, not somewhere you go.  And that we do the work where the work is.” - Kez Wold, Texas APS Administrator

The social distancing required by COVID-19 has forced many APS programs to implement a remote work model on the fly.  But, as the quote above indicates, APS work has always been remote – alleged victims, alleged perpetrators, and evidence don’t show up at APS offices. What used to be found at APS offices – supervisors, IT support, peers, parties – are still important to successful casework but they are now not available in the same way.  COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink whether physical offices are critical.

Even before COVID-19, remote work models were increasing in the US as communication and technology improved and management philosophy adapted to changing technological and social conditions. Even now, there are articles indicating that as a society we are not going to return to our old work styles. One of the consequences of COVID-19 is that we are all going to have learn how to make remote work actually work.

So, how do APS programs make a successful transition to remote work? Should APS programs consider continuing the practice once social distancing restrictions are a thing of the past?  To answer these questions, we conducted a webinar with three administrators from APS programs that have used remote workers for the last several years:

  • Kezeli Wold - Associate Commissioner for APS at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. 
  • Michael Hagenlock - Bureau Chief for APS at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services
  • Akiles Ceron - APS Program Director for the City and County of San Francisco.

We asked them:

  • when and why they implemented remote work,
  • what supports were necessary for success,
  • how they manage worker performance,
  • what were the consequences,
  • what critical things they learned along the way.

Why remote work? What do Texas, Montana, and San Francisco have in common that would spur them to adopt remote casework?  Both Montana and Texas have great expanses requiring significant driving to the degree that driving to the office/home made no sense. In San Francisco and Houston the same thing is true just driving across town.  Remote work was the partial solution to traffic problems, but it also helped the programs take advantage of other opportunities.  In Texas, a program reform empowered staff with better technology tools but they were implemented without a plan how to best use them.  In San Francisco, the program sought innovative ways to empower and incentivize staff to improve performance.  In both cases, remote work was part of the solution.

What does it take to make remote work successful?  You must convince everybody it is a good idea.  Work culture needs to change. As Akiles said, culture needs to change from one of “presenteeism” (where showing up on time is considered a success) to a focus on quality and compliance. Field staff, especially (most) workers, are the easiest sell.  Management and peers in other programs are the hardest sell.  Support staff – IT, legal, financial – are the most critical sell.  Buy-in from program staff, especially supervisors, is critical.  You must:

  • Establish a sense of trust with staff through good communication and training.
  • Physically de-couple staff from the office environment by replacing individual offices with workstations (also saving money).
  • Provide technological support through the right equipment and support.
  • Adjust policy for human resources and casework expectations (for example, Texas implemented “As You Go” documentation requirements, requiring casework documentation in real time or soon as possible thereafter).
  • Use data to manage your program (view our recorded webinar on this topic and/or contact the APS TARC if you are interested in a state-specific workshop).
  • Reinforce that good management practices – frequent, consistent meetings with agendas for individuals and teams; constructive employee evaluation; ongoing training  – become MORE important in a remote environment.

Even if you do all these “must dos”, what will you lose, what negative consequences will you have to overcome?  The obvious, but wrong, answer to this question is that lower staff performance.  Our panelists agreed that if supervisors and management use data and good management practices they can continue to manage staff performance.  Indeed, San Francisco conditions the “right” to work remotely on high performance.  Montana and Texas have a philosophy of “this is the way we are doing business” and our performance expectations have not changed.
Still, there will be a loss in the staff support normally found through the relationships and social interaction that comes from being together in the office.  There is potential for feeling a lack of support and a sense of isolation.  But there are ways to compensate for this loss, whether it is videoconference team meetings, continued staff recognition meetings, or any other number of good ideas.

If we implement the must dos and manage the losses, what potential benefits can you expect?  First, according to our panelists, happier and more productive employees.  Happier employees increase retention.  More productive, experienced employees mean better casework and better outcomes for clients.  (Be careful that your newly more productive employees keep an appropriate work-life balance – that staff unplug at the end of the day – since the walls between the two have been taken down.)  Another benefit is that programs are much better prepared to deal with natural disasters and emergencies.

Does this sound too good to be true? San Francisco conducted a study after 18 months and found “… all APS mobile workers combined had saved 46,564 miles and $31,503. Most participants reported that Mobile Work had improved their work/life balance, and 17 cubicles had been vacated. So, Mobile Work as a performance management tool became a key win-win for staff and management.”  Listen to the employees in San Francisco: 

  • “I have saved some time and stress out of my life from not having to commute to and from work………. That one hour to and one hour back home really makes a difference in my life. A more flexible work schedule has also benefited my life as I am able to sleep in longer and start at a later time for work if I felt my body needed it”
  • “I feel that this has been a privilege to be a part of a program that has this option for their workers. I am also happy to see that a government program is catching up with what bigger tech companies are also doing/offering for their employees”

At the conclusion of the webinar, each panelist was asked for one piece of advice they would give: 
  • Kez Be flexible.  If it doesn’t work well, don’t give up.  Evaluate your approach and try something different.  We’ve been doing mobile casework for over a decade and we still are adjusting, adapting, and improving. 
  • Michael: Be clear, systematic, and patient
  • Akiles:  Ask mobile workers to provide timely feedback to supervisors and managers regarding any concerns with the mobile work program. Work with managers and supervisors to determine the best way to provide and receive supervision and oversight in the program.

Want to know more? As a first step, listen to the webinar.  This blog scratches the surface on some of good advice in it.  Second, watch for a series of short training podcasts on remote work prepared by the training department at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in an upcoming blog post.  Third, reach-out to the APS TARC for assistance or more information.  If we don’t know the answer to your questions, we have our sources! 

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