Tuesday, September 15, 2020

How Pension Funds Cope with Work-From-Home Environment

Survey Allows Pension System Administrators to Gauge Remote Work Policies of Industry Cohorts

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

By ALLEN JONES/TEXPERS Communications Manager

The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to find new ways to operate as federal and state health departments continue to promote social distancing. For their employees' wellbeing, private- and public-sector employers alike have had to develop new or expand existing remote work policies - and that includes public pension systems.

As the pandemic continues, many workplaces are attempting to figure out how remote work has impacted their operations, what their priorities should be, and what the future may hold for remote work. The National Association of State Retirement Administrators recently surveyed its members to see how their pension systems' remote work policies have changed since the novel coronavirus pandemic forced many workplaces to operate under social distancing recommendations of national and local health departments. 

The NASRA report doesn't offer best-practices as much as it compiles responses from the various retirement system members who participated in the survey. The nonprofit association's members are the directors of the nation's state, territorial, and largest statewide public retirement systems. Because those members are responsible for their systems' day-to-day administrations, NASRA researchers wanted to find out how their members are responding to the pandemic in terms of workplace policies and practices.

The expectation, said NASRA Research Director Keith Brainard in an email, is that public retirement systems will glean helpful insights from their fellow systems' responses.

In August, NASRA invited all 90 of its members, including 20 directors of local retirement systems who are NASRA Educational Alliance members, to participate in the survey. Out of the 90 members invited to take the survey, 28 retirement systems in 24 states participated, including Texas' Employees Retirement System and the state's Teacher Retirement System.

"I was impressed by how effectively and seamlessly responding systems appear to have transitioned to conducting their work primarily from the homes of system employees," Brainard said. "This appears to be the result partly of telecommuting and disaster recovery policies and practices that were in place for many systems prior to the onset of the pandemic. Notably, some systems reported that they do not have a policy for employees working remotely, although those systems also appear to be weathering the experience without major disruption."

What surprised Brainard the most about the survey responses is how universally systems appear to have effectively transitioned to having substantially all of their major functions conducted from employees' homes rather than in a central office.

The seven-page report lists questions provided in the survey along with responses provided by their participating members. Access to NASRA survey results are typically made available only to NASRA members. Because of the unique, pervasive, and significant effects of the pandemic on the broader community of public retirement systems, the association made the results of this survey more widely accessible. To encourage full and candid participation in NASRA's surveys, Brainard said the association does not share survey results attributable to individual survey respondents.

Written Policies

Of the 28 systems participating in the survey, 20 had a written policy governing employees working remotely. Eight responded they did not have a remote work policy.

Thirteen of the 20 systems with a written policy reported that the policy was in place before the pandemic. Six systems developed a remote work policy in response to the pandemic. One system had a policy in place before the pandemic but updated it during the health crisis.

Survey respondents also gave various answers to a question asking which groups of employees could work remotely and which ones were ineligible.

Seven systems indicated that all employees could work from home. Eight systems responded that all employees could work from home except essential employees or those whose duties will not allow.

Additional responses from NASRA members include:

  • As a response to the pandemic, we are allowing employees who are able to complete job responsibilities remotely with health or childcare issues to work remotely at the discretion of their division director.
  • Decisions as to who may work remotely are made on a case by case basis. Most of our administrative, accounting and customer service personnel are capable of remote work.
  • Been employed more than six months, have at least 'effective' performance, be able to work independently, work in a role that lends itself to remote work.
  • Investments, Finance, Legal, Executive, IT.
  • Managerial discretion.
  • Technically, no employees are "eligible" to work remotely. Almost all employees, except for some staff in operations, are working under a temporary telework arrangement.
  • Majority of staff. Remote connectivity dictates ability to work remotely.

When asked about employees who are ineligible to work remotely, systems indicated call center staff and IT personnel along with member service representatives such as receptionists. Other responses provided:

  • Front desk
  • Mailroom staff
  • Those who cannot perform essential services remotely.
  • It is up to the manager of the department, but typically managers and supervisors would only telecommute on an ad hoc basis.
  • Workers whose job requires resources only found in the building (Facilities Services, Mail Center Printshop, etc.).
  • Essential staff needed to maintain remote operations.
Some systems required employees such as those who can perform their work remotely, field representatives, employees under quarantine who can complete their job responsibilities, staff deemed to be "at-risk" of contracting the novel coronavirus, to work remotely. Only staff considered as essential to operations could come to the office.

Another system asked those it allowed to remote work to come to the office two days a week. The required in-office days were subject to change based on local virus conditions and did not forbid any employee from entering the system's offices.

One NASRA member system indicated that roughly 66 percent of its staff are teleworking on any given day and 34 percent working from the office. Another plan reported allowing three managers to work onsite regularly while the remote staff was not allowed in the system building. For a staff person who had to come to the office, the system required them to undergo a wellness screening in advance of arriving.

One system indicated that its remote workers are "fully remote" and must get permission from their senior manager to enter the system office building. According to the respondent, the rule is to maintain the health of the small essential workforce needed to process incoming payments and documents.

Office Supplies and Equipment

NASRA also asked its members about office supplies and equipment provided to those allowed to work remotely. Computers, monitors, keyboards and other peripherals, telephones, and headsets are among the equipment one system made available to staff.

One system issued laptops to remote staff. For field representatives working 100 percent remotely, the system provided cell phones and vehicles so they could continue to travel throughout the state. Another system even provided remote staff with adjustable height workstations, if ergonomically required.

A system installed a cloud-based phone system to accommodate remote workers. Another reported providing printers, envelopes, and postage for a few administrative staff to send correspondence that is not system generated, such as letters from the director's office. One system allowed employees to submit requests to take their office chairs home.

One NASRA member indicated that before the pandemic, because teleworking was optional, and staff provided their own equipment. During the pandemic, however, because teleworking was required, staff without proper equipment were provided tools need to work remotely.


NASRA researchers also asked respondents to describe any cybersecurity systems that are in place for remote workers. Among the selected responses:
  • A new cybersecurity curriculum was created to emphasize work from home security best practices while continuing to adhere to existing data protection standards. Various delivery methods were employed to address adoption of topics, from interactive videos to daily emails converting remote work security tips.
  • Our system's network infrastructure was scaled to provide the needed technology performance to handle increased demands on computer, email, and communication conferencing programs. 
  • Required operating system requirements and approved anti-virus software. Employees are also trained on cybersecurity monthly.
  • To access VPN (a virtual private network), we utilize Cisco AnyConnect. Employees must first log into Cisco AnyConnect using a third-party authentication code; then, they are allowed to access their office desktop through VPN.
  • Multifactor authentication. Monitoring of connections. Log tracking and evaluation through two vendor partners.
  • McAfee login for laptops and FortiClient two-factor authentication to access the network.

Post-pandemic Practices

NASRA also asked its members if they expected their systems' policies and practices regarding employees working remotely to change after the pandemic, and, if so, in what ways. One member responded with a "yes," explaining that teleworking has taught system administrators that certain divisions can be more productive using teleworking than in the building.

"We will be open to each division finding the right balance between work from home and in the office to maximize productivity," wrote the unnamed survey respondent. "In rough terms, I suspect that we will see about 50 percent of work done remotely ranging from full-time work from home employees to full-time in the office (and every possible combination in between)."

Among the survey's selected responses, a respondent wrote that the system's work from home policy would remain the same after the pandemic. The respondent anticipates approximately 50 percent of the system's staff will continue to work remotely for at least two to three days per week.

Another respondent wrote that the system's standard telework policy is likely to be reworked to make it less complicated and not require as much documentation. The respondent also reported that most employees would probably be doing some telework due to weather, childcare, or delivery issues as well as be required to demonstrate this about once a month just for business robustness and continuity operations.

One answer indicated that the system's remote work policy is only for those impacted or potentially impacted by COVID-19 and that remote working was not allowed before the pandemic. The respondent wrote that the system would not implement a long-term remote work policy.

According to another survey respondent, the system's remote work policy is used in limited scenarios - generally as accommodations for health reasons. The system quickly created work-from-home guidelines at the start of local and state social distancing requirements, but that the system had not made a policy because administrators want to set policies based on post-pandemic circumstance. Changes, according to the survey respondent, would require employees to enter the building periodically, require speed minimum on home internets, require that remote work employees acquire childcare/adult care services as they would if they were coming into the office, and require remote workers to turn on video form home for meetings.

Challenges and Benefits

Some survey respondents offered challenges resulting from the implementation of remote work. One NASRA member said the retirement system's rural state has less than ideal connectivity options, which presents logistical challenges for some staff. Another survey respondent wrote that system administrators are seeking ways to maintain communication and workplace culture when most employees are working from home.

Others listed the benefits of remote work. Among the responses, a system director indicated that business metrics such as retirement application processing and telephone service level were not negatively impacted due to teleworking. The respondent also stated that system data also shows a decrease in staff absenteeism.

Another respondent indicated that telecommuting has been ideal for the winter weather in the system's state. According to the respondent, system employees are happy with the program, and service levels remain high.

For a more in-depth look at how remote work policies and guidelines are impacting retirement systems, access the NASRA report here.

"I would expect that these results will help inform public retirement systems to better understand the challenges and potential solutions to planning and implementing policies and practices for employees to work from home," Brainard, NASRA's research director, said. "Beyond the immediate need generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this information may also be helpful in developing and refining public retirement system disaster recovery policies and practices."

NASRA does not have an official policy on or expertise in public retirement system work-from-home or remote work policies. One of the benefits of organizations like NASRA, Brainard said, is that it can facilitate compilation and sharing of information about the broader public retirement system community that can help retirement systems learn from the insights and experiences of one another.

Currently, NASRA does not plan to conduct further research or surveys on remote work policies. However, Brainard said that should the need arise, based on observation or in response to a request from membership, the association may perform additional work in this area.

Retirement systems looking for additional information on creating remote work policies, the Government Finance Officers Association published a primer, Working Remotely: A Guide for the Public Sector, that public sector employees might find beneficial. The guide is available here.

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