How One City Connects with its New Remote Workforce During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A look back on the lessons from Kansas City, Missouri’s employee teleworking surveys

June 19th marks the three-month anniversary of the City of Kansas City, Missouri’s emergency employee teleworking program. Like many cities and organizations around the world, the past three months have been a high-stakes experiment in sustaining operations via a remote workforce.

Kansas City had zero teleworkers when Mayor Quinton Lucas declared a state of emergency on March 12th, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a little over a month, 20% of the City’s 4,500 person workforce were registered to telework.

KCMO’s leadership faced a whole new set of questions with over 900 employees suddenly working from home with little preparation or notice.

Do teleworking employees have the right technology to perform their regular job functions? If not, what resources do teleworkers need and how does the City deliver them? What’s the most effective way for management to communicate with teleworkers? What new challenges are teleworkers facing at home? Are employees happy teleworking? Do teleworkers feel connected to their colleagues and supervisors? The list goes on and on.

The following story details:

  • How KCMO utilized a new employee teleworking survey to answer these questions
  • What the survey revealed about employee teleworking experiences
  • How the survey data has been utilized by City leaders in expected and unexpected ways
  • The importance of sharing survey results

My DataKC colleagues, Julie Steenson and Kate Bender, initially wrote about the employee telework survey in articles in March and April. As a result of these articles, I’ve been contacted by numerous government organizations (state, city and transportation authorities) from across the country who are also trying to connect with their remote workers. We’ve shared our survey tools with anyone who asked and had insightful conversations over video calls with many data-driven peers in government.

This article offers a glimpse into these collaborative discussions in hopes that KCMO’s lessons learned might support other organizational leaders who are working to connect with their newly remote workforce.

Teleworking Survey Background

Immediately after the emergency teleworking program was initiated, the assistant city manager overseeing the program, Rick Usher, requested that DataKC design a teleworking survey to understand the technology and communications needs of employees as they transitioned to working from home.

DataKC’s staff has administered numerous surveys throughout the past decade, including the annual resident satisfaction survey, employee engagement survey, and business satisfaction survey, as well as one-time, ad-hoc surveys for City departments and divisions, including Municipal Court, Parks and Recreation, Fire Department, 311, Budget Office, etc.

However, the employee teleworking survey is perhaps the most agile and iterative surveying project DataKC has coordinated to date.

Four telework surveys were administered and analysed internally every other week over a two month period. This was an ambitious surveying timeline for our office considering that we typically administer other employee surveys once a year.

Surveys were not anonymous, were composed of open-ended, yes/no and multiple choice questions, and took about 5–10 minutes for users to take. DataKC consulted with a cross-departmental group of stakeholders (i.e, Law, Human Resources, City Manager’s Office, General Services, etc.) to design the questions for each survey in order to get the most actionable value from collective responses.

A primary target audience for each set of survey results was defined, but evolved based on the demand for new insights. These primary audiences included managers for the City’s Information Technology Office, City Communications Office, the City Manager’s internal Coronavirus task force of department directors, and the City’s Return to Work Committee.

Just like the evolving target audiences, the survey topics shifted over the course of the four surveys; from technology access/issues and communications needs to understanding employee productivity and satisfaction to understanding the mobility impacts of teleworking and supervisor feedback.

Teleworking Lessons Learned

I’ve heard numerous objections about the prospects of teleworking during my time with Kansas City, Missouri.

These may sound familiar to you if you also work for an organization that didn’t have a teleworking policy prior to March 2020.

“The City won’t be able to provide the technological capacity for employees to work from home.” “Our employees don’t want to telework.” “Employee unions won’t support telework.” “It will be too difficult for supervisors to manage productivity for employees working remotely.”

The results from the teleworking surveys turned all of these notions on their head:

  • 98% of teleworking employees are interested in continuing to do some form of teleworking going forward
  • 93% employee satisfaction working from home (65% of these responses were “very satisfied”)
  • 92% of employees felt more productive or as productive teleworking as working on-site
  • 88% of supervisors felt very connected or connected to their teleworking employees. In turn, 84% of teleworking employees feel very connected or connected to their supervisors
  • 77% of teleworking employees felt that working from home improved their work/life balance. 74% felt teleworking gave them more quality time with family
  • 76% of supervisors felt their employees were more productive or as productive teleworking as working on-site
Example of survey results from Telework Survey #4

Taking Action with Employee Feedback

As the teleworking survey administrator, one of the most frequent questions I receive is, “how have the survey results been used?”

Here’s a summary of some of the expected, and also unexpected, impacts from the survey so far:

  • Used by the City’s internal Return To Work Committee to help guide policy for the phased plan of City employees returning to the workplace
  • Currently utilized by a task force working on a permanent teleworking policy
  • One director is utilizing survey cross-tabs to develop a new teleworking policy for their department
  • The Information Technology (IT) Division ordered 100 headsets for survey respondents who identified microphone or audio issues as a barrier to using video chat
  • On Surveys #1 and #2, employees were asked to take a internet speed test. 13 employees with low internet speeds received WiFi hotspots from the City
  • After each survey, IT employees reached out directly to employees who reported issues accessing the City’s network or issues with their devices
  • Many staff left open-ended comments on surveys #2 and #3 about how they would like to be given notice about new citywide policies regarding Stay-At-Home restrictions before those policies were announced publicly. As a result, the City Manager wrote a mass email notifying staff about a change to City facilities reopening prior to a public announcement from the Mayor. Teleworking employee satisfaction with the City’s communications increased 7 percentage points (81% to 88%) on survey #4, with “very satisfied” increasing 8 percent.
  • Connected one employee who responded on the survey that they were unable to perform their regular job functions from home with an alternative, COVID-19 related work role in the City’s Health Department
  • Sparked the creation and administration of more new, ad-hoc employee surveys (e.g., return to work survey, employee workplace innovation survey and a Fire Department employee survey)
  • Provided new insights into the digital divide regarding KCMO’s employees
  • Provided new insights into how City employees commute to work, as well as the carbon footprint of teleworking employees. The City’s Office of Environmental Quality estimated there were over 34,000 gallons of gas saved and 300 metrics tons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided (equivalent to the energy use of 35 homes in one year) as a result of three months of City employees teleworking

Take the Time to Communicate Results

The teleworking employee surveys have reminded me how essential it is to communicate survey results and impacts to the people who take the survey. Reporting out seems like a no-brainer, but it’s frequently an overlooked step by survey administrators.

How many times have you taken time from your busy schedule to take a survey with no idea how, or even if, your feedback was utilized?

If you’re like me, then you’ll probably have a hard time recalling examples of when you received a follow-up from a company about how your survey feedback was used.

When we ask people to take surveys and don’t make an effort to share the results or inform them about how their feedback informed decisions, we miss an opportunity to connect with them as valued customers and encourage more feedback.

Honestly, I was worried about our employees having survey fatigue when we asked them to take four surveys in two months. It turns out the response rates were great! We had between a 55%-70% response rate on each survey. Respondents consistently offered thoughtful and attentive responses in their open-ended comments.

Here’s a few of the actions that I think greatly contributed to a successful positive feedback loop in surveying our employees:

  • Personalized email communication — Survey requests for all four surveys were primarily sent to employee work emails. Each email included a brief reminder of why people were being asked to take the survey and who the target audience was for survey feedback, as well as updates on how feedback was being put into action
  • Visible results— All survey results were posted for employees to access on the City’s intranet. Additionally, the articles written by my DataKC colleagues following each survey were resources for employees who wanted to take a deeper dive into the survey’s results and impacts
  • Employee Lunch and Learn —In late April, I presented in a one-hour, teleworking-themed lunch and learn to City employees on Microsoft Teams. This was an opportunity for employees to ask questions about teleworking and view survey results. 40 employees attended and the session was recorded and shared on the City’s intranet for those employees who couldn’t attend.
  • External awareness — It’s also important that local governments take the time to report out not just internally, but also publicly to communicate about success in operations. The public only learned about KCMO’s teleworking survey efforts after DataKC’s posts. As a result, numerous national publications ended up discovering and writing articles about the survey, including Bloomberg News, GovTech and Route Fifty. This elevated exposure has helped provide transparency to our residents about the City’s data-informed decision-making and helps further validate survey insights to KCMO’s leaders and employees.

Closing Thoughts

The City of Kansas City, Missouri is not alone in the challenges it faces in understanding the needs of a growing number of employees who are adapting to remote work.

Uncertainty is the new normal for most organizations in the era of COVID-19. Many workers around the U.S. still don’t know how long they will continue to work remotely. Many companies are unsure when their operations will fully resume on-site.

Surveying is one tool that KCMO’s leaders are using to help shed light on what comes next for city services, as well as a way to connect with and support the people responsible for implementing those services.

-Bo McCall (DataKC)

The official Medium page for Kansas City’s DataKC. DataKC is the City of Kansas City, Missouri’s Central Data Team.

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