New Brief: Suddenly Virtual: Workforce Services, Eight Weeks Later

June 25, 2020

Reports workforce staff members’ current thinking on virtual services, remote teaming, and a potential return to in-person services. 

An April 2020 survey by the Heldrich Center found that, after overcoming the initial shock and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, public workforce system staff had largely adopted virtual operations and honed their skills with remote teaming and virtual service delivery. After eight weeks of suddenly virtual operations, in June 2020, Heldrich Center researchers conducted a follow-up survey, hosted two roundtable discussions, and performed a website audit of the local workforce areas in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in order to assess their staffs’ current thinking on virtual services, remote teaming, and a potential return to in-person services. 

In a new brief, Suddenly Virtual: Workforce Services, Eight Weeks Later, Heldrich Center researchers found that many of the issues staff reported in the early stages of virtual operations have been resolved, including most issues with staff technology, document sharing, and teaming. In the past eight weeks, local workforce areas have placed great emphasis on digitizing existing job seeker services, including activities such as recording PowerPoint presentations, using email to send job seekers materials and job leads, and more. Overall, staff have reached a “new normal,” which has led some individuals to begin to rethink existing service delivery structures and to think of new possibilities for customer-facing services. 

Despite making such strides in the virtual space, staff reported that a return to in-person operations is looming, with a majority anticipating reopening by the end of summer 2020. From the survey responses, researchers found a disparity between frontline staff and managers regarding their comfort level with a return to their physical offices. Frontline staff expressed greater discomfort returning to their workplaces. An issue revealed in the roundtable discussions was the concern over siloed and fragmented plans to return to in-person operations. Questions on personal protective equipment provisions, state staff's plans to return, and the state Department of Labor’s plans to reopen were all largely unknown and of concern for roundtable participants.

One roundtable participant posed the question, “Why reopen?” This exemplifies the extent to which local workforce area staff have risen to the challenges of virtual operations and continue to adapt quickly and leverage the power of technology for the benefit of both staff and customers alike. The need for virtual services will continue, even as staff begin to return to their offices. As states continue to reopen, great care and consideration must go into the precautionary measures needed to safely resume operations to varying degrees in the physical American Job Center offices.