State of California must overcome ingrained organizational culture, IT challenges to successfully navigate transition to virtual work

Two factors have accelerated the State of California’s more than three decades in the making shift to virtual work:

  • The 2019 installation of a chief executive who unlike his predecessors has lived most of his life during the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution that brought about personal computing devices and Internet-based advanced telecommunications.
  • A global pandemic that made dense occupancy “cube farm” office environments decidedly risky for the spread of a novel communicable disease.

Without these factors, the state would have likely continued uninterrupted with its entrenched organizational culture where putting in hours at the office is regarded as both “work” and earning one’s future dollars in what’s become a rarity for most workers: a defined benefit pension plan with medical benefits. That culture has resisted virtual work for decades notwithstanding policy promulgated dating back to 1988 by both the Governor’s Office and the Legislature.

Management guru Peter Drucker is credited with the organizational behavior maxim that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It similarly makes a meal of public policy since culture is reinforced daily by group expectations and norms whereas policy merely exists in written form that’s meaningless without organizational buy in.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Wes Venteicher reports, Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed the 75 percent of state workers currently working outside of their state offices due to pandemic disease control measures put in place in March to continue to do so on either a full or part time basis as the state begins to reopen.

Going forward, Newsom’s revised budget summary for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020 notes contagion control measures implemented by his administration “has forced a massive experiment in telework.” It directs state agencies to develop “expanded long-term telework strategies” and to “rethink business processes.”  

A 1990 report on a state telework pilot project begun in 1985 recommended managers and staff be trained to think in terms of work results rather than work processes. That’s a huge challenge for an organization where the key process metric is time spent in the office. Standing present for duty in the office is also a component of the state’s preferred command and control management style. That way managers are prepared with a team standing ready in case someone higher up or very high up in the chain of command wants something pronto.

It’s unlikely more than three decades of fraught history with telework can be changed overnight, even by a global pandemic and the worst budget shortfall in the state’s history. Another challenge for the state is to put in place a robust and secure cloud-based IT infrastructure that can support virtual work on an ongoing basis given IT modernization has not been its historical strong suit.

One of the most favorable factors in this transition is the promotion of millennials into management roles. Unlike generations before them, they grew up with information and communications technologies. They know from experience they enable knowledge work and setting policy – the mainstay of government work – possible outside of the centralized, commute-in offices of their parents’ generation. As well as the traffic congestion and air pollution they generate that kicked off the state’s 1980s telework pilot project to help reduce it.

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