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Utah's new telework law takes effect this week

Posted at 3:47 PM, May 03, 2021

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah — State government will take a major step forward this week, designating a lot of its workforce based on whether or not they have the ability to telework.

But as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of them already are. It's also prompting a cascading series of changes in how state government handles employees coming back to the office.

For example, the new Utah State Office Building has been re-designed to accommodate more teleworkers. Construction is finishing up on the building, which will house a number of state agencies. Some agencies are shrinking their footprint — because more employees are working remotely.

"Each teleworker's going to be a little bit different. One might come in two days a week, one might come in one day a month," said Sarah Boll, the assistant director of Utah's Division of Facilities, Construction & Management. "Obviously, that solution indicates how that space might be designed."

Pre-pandemic, Utah was starting to experiment with the idea of teleworking. It was pushed by then-Lt. Governor Spencer Cox. In addition to air quality issues, it has been pushed as an idea to boost rural Utah economic development.

"The pandemic happened and about 8,000 employees went home," Boll said.

What they've learned in the pandemic is that teleworking does work. Since more people are working remotely and that is likely to continue, Boll said they have re-imagined some spaces inside the $20 million new state office building.

For example, Utah's Division of Technology decided to shrink the amount of space it needed. It also abandoned dedicated workspaces for employees in favor of unassigned desks.

That pattern is repeating itself in other agencies within the same building. There are more communal spaces for an employee to come in, plug into a docking station with a pair of monitors and work for the afternoon. If they need to take a meeting, there are smaller conference rooms set up for video chats and even more private "focus rooms" where they can hold a one-on-one meeting or make a call.

"Pre-pandemic, traditionally, a state office building was designed with one desk to one employee whether that desk was an open environment or a closed environment," Boll said. "Now that we understand how successful teleworking can be, we can apply a desk-sharing ratio of an average of one desk to 1.5 employees."

Boll said it will make more space for other agencies. In turn, the state doesn't need to lease office spaces in other places, and then it becomes a savings to taxpayers.

But it does require an upfront investment. There's renovations needed for buildings that are decades old, and equipment needs. A proposed $245 million investment statewide would renovate and build a number of facilities across the state. However, Utah's Department of Administrative Services points out that doing so means the state exits 91 other buildings and saves taxpayers up to $750 million over the next 50 years.

The Utah State Legislature could consider the funding request at its special session later this month, where they will fund a number of infrastructure requests using federal COVID-19 stimulus money.

The new teleworking law was designed for bad air quality days. Employees' jobs were classified based on whether they can work remotely. It's expected the new law will be utilized this summer when ozone or wildfire smoke reaches a point. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has already ensured it's being utilized now.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who sponsored the law, pushed it to help Utah's air quality and have state government set an example. However, he intended for private business to consider doing the same with its employees.