Monday, May 18, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Travis County plans for 75% of eligible county employees to telework permanently

Currently, 2,300 employees of Travis County telecommute to their jobs. Most of these newly minted teleworkers started working from home following the Stay Home-Work Safe orders issued by the city and county on March 24.

Now the county is exploring ways to extend this policy permanently.

On May 12, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to have staff develop a plan by next month that incorporates telecommuting as a long-term work strategy for 75 percent of the 3,000 eligible county employees.

“This is not to be haphazard,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea, who sponsored the initiative along with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. Shea requested that people management and productivity issues be included as part of the plan that comes back before the commissioners for review.

Though a co-sponsor of the effort, Daugherty cautioned that the development of a full plan would not be feasible within 30 days. He mentioned a variety of considerations, including the future of the county’s commercial buildings, how many parking spaces will be budgeted per employee and the required technology access for each individual.

Although the plan that arrives next month will be only an initial plan, Shea underscored its urgency, saying, “I do think it’s important for us to take advantage of the momentum we have now.”

Daugherty told the Austin Monitor that it cost the county $700,000 to roll out the emergency work-from-home capabilities for 2,300 employees. This three-quarters of a million-dollar expenditure is only the initial financial outlay. “Obviously we’re going to have to spend some additional money,” he said.

Several county departments chimed in to offer feedback about their work-from-home experience over the last two months. Bonnie Floyd with the county purchasing office said overall the change been a positive one for her department. “Honestly, I think we’re going to have a hard time convincing people that they have to go back downtown,” she said, adding that the purchasing department is independently working on a policy to expand teleworking for its staff.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez said, “It’s a very efficient way of working.” However, she wondered about the long-term viability of maintaining the work standards of an office. “How do you keep up with the performance of employees once they’re home?”

Tracey Calloway, the director of the county’s Human Resources Department, suggested increasing telephone contact between individuals. Cynthia McDonald, the county executive in the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, said the county will need to extend trainings and reassess employee equipment allocation to ensure that telecommuting is successful in the future.

With nearly all of the county’s eligible employees already working remotely, Shea expressed her confidence in achieving a 75 percent work-from-home policy. “There are so many benefits from having a really significant telecommuting goal,” she said, including less traffic, improved air quality and a safer work environment.

“It does sound like everyone is hugely in favor of it,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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