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Despite micromanaging concerns, the city’s telework policy advances

Wednesday, January 31, 2024 by Elizabeth Pagano

After a debate on how granular the policy should be, the Planning Commission has given its blessing to a series of amendments that will help shape the city’s telework policy.

The amendments were initiated by the Planning Commission last year as a change to Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan. During the height of the pandemic, the city shifted about half of its workforce to telework, but last year saw the interim city manager push back against that as a permanent change. In October, City Council endorsed the Planning Commission approach, and changes that would increase the number of city employees who work from home were put into the context of transportation goals that seek to reduce the number of employees who get to work using single-occupancy methods. 

Commissioners embraced the amendments, voting 10-2 to recommend the changes to City Council, with commissioners Greg Anderson and Felicity Maxwell voting against. However, the discussion revealed concerns with how specific the policy should be.

Maxwell noted that a previous presentation by Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea on the county’s policy had noted its strong telework policy had attracted employees, and she suggested that establishing an eligibility goal could help with recruitment at the city as well. She praised the county’s policy, which has a goal that 75 percent of county workers be eligible for telework, and pushed for more ambitious language in the proposed amendments.

She suggested an amendment that would show the city is serious about a regional push to encourage teleworking by increasing the work-from-home goal to 25 percent for all Austinites by 2039. In addition, her amendment asked that 85 percent of eligible city employees work from home. (About 7,570 city employees are eligible to telework, of the 14,500 total city positions.)

“We know we’re not hitting our mode-share goals. We’d like to encourage this type of teleworking,” Maxwell said. “The city of Austin can be a leader and follow in the footsteps of Travis County.”

However, after a discussion that revealed some members were concerned the amendments went too far into dictating how departments should be managed, Maxwell’s amendment failed.

Commissioner Adam Haynes pointed out that Shea said the county policy worked because the managers and people impacted by it were the ones to develop it, unlike what was being proposed.

“We are dictating, as a policymaking body, personnel decisions here. And that’s outside our scope,” Haynes said. 

Commissioner Grayson Cox, who was also was in the telework working group, also spoke against the amendment. 

“My concern was that we were somehow using the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and dictating to managers some sort of goal where they have to encourage or get pressured to have their employees work from home. And that should not be what our goal is,” he said. “Our goal is to encourage policies that achieve our goals, but we should not be dictating what those policies necessarily are when they broach human resources and management.”

Following the failure of Maxwell’s amendment, Haynes made his own amendment softening the prescriptive nature of the new rules. His amendment, which passed, changed language asking for an “increase” in employees that work from home to instead request that the city design policies that promote the practice.

Commissioner Awais Azhar disagreed with the stance that the push for more telework was inappropriate, saying “using telework policies and being a little robust about our goals, I feel, helps us move closer to those goals and utilizing the city’s own infrastructure to achieve those goals is perhaps the best thing.”

“Instead of sitting in this building and constantly asking Amazon or Google to figure out how to change their personnel policies – something of which we have no control here – we are in the city of Austin and have the ability to use all of our resources, our personnel, our public property, our technology, the way we do carbon emissions, the way we use energy. All of these different things, I think, help us move our goals forward.” 

Haynes’ amendment passed in a vote of 7-5. 

The telework policy is currently scheduled for a public hearing and consideration by Council on Feb. 15. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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