Thursday, March 26, 2020

A crisis survival guide for pension systems

By Allen Jones, TEXPERS Communications Manager

As more workers face shelter-in-place orders in their communities to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, public pension systems are maintaining operations by having staff work remotely. 

Public pensions are busy operations. System staff work to administer defined benefit pension benefits to employees of state and local governments. They communicate with active and retired pensioners, work with vendors to fulfill client services, conduct board meetings, ensure retirement checks are issued, manage investments, and collaborate on various other projects aimed at securing retirement for public employees. That work isn’t over, even during a pandemic.

Remote working, or telecommuting, allows your fund’s professionals to continue doing their work outside of a traditional office setting. But these are unprecedented times that require some out-of-the-box thinking.

With today’s internet-based technology, remote employees can execute their projects and accomplish their goals practically wherever they please. During the current health crisis, that remote place is most likely their own home as they isolate themselves and loved ones from a new respiratory virus that has claimed upwards of 20,000 lives worldwide (as of March 25). Check here for the latest data.

Benefits of Remote Working

Remote working isn’t a new concept. Technology has allowed various industries around the world to reduce office expenses while claiming improved worker satisfaction. According to the results of a 2017 Gallup survey, more American employees are working remotely and doing so for more extended periods. At the time, 43 percent of 15,000 adults surveyed said they spent at least some time working remotely. It represented a 4 percent increase since 2012. 

Some studies have pointed to increased productivity, lower employee turnover, and even a reduction in auto emissions as people spend fewer hours commuting to and from offices. However, the exact impacts of remote work have yet to be measured across industries and for an extended length of time, according to a report on  

Who Should be Working Remotely, Now?

Regardless if your pension fund’s staff were already taking part in the remote work lifestyle, most likely, they are doing it now as governments enact social distancing policy to combat COVID-19. The Dallas-area, the Houston-area, and Austin residents are among workers facing orders to stay home unless they are employed in businesses deemed essential such as emergency services, sanitation, trucking, and grocery industries. 

That’s because cases of COVID-19 are increasing in urban areas of Texas. As of March 22, many of the state’s more rural counties were reporting zero evidence of the disease. Because of that, Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t implemented a statewide shelter-in-place order. 

“I am governor of 254 counties in the state of Texas,” Abbott said during a March 22 interview. “More than 200 of those counties in the state of Texas still have zero cases of people testing positive for COVID-19.”

For now, Abbott has left shelter-in-place orders up to counties and municipalities. This website is tracking states with shelter-in-place orders – click the state of Texas on the map to look for information about your county or city. 

Things to Consider While Remote Working During a Pandemic

If your staff is working remotely, it is necessary to have tools in place to ensure they can effectively communicate with each other, accomplish their goals, and stay healthy during a stressful time. Here are some tips to help your plan’s employees stay productive while social distancing:

  • Communicate Regularly: Workers under shelter-in-place restrictions no longer find themselves near coworkers. They can’t walk over to pop a question about a collaborative project. Their managers aren’t close by with doors open to address concerns. As a plan administrator, try and replicate as much of that as possible by setting up communication channels for employees and board members. Make sure staff have essential phone numbers and email addresses. Create a set place on your fund’s website for staff to access important updates about operations. Schedule regular calls for one-on-one meetings. Use apps for video meetups or schedule conference calls for team meetings. Treat your virtual and telephone meetings as you would any in-office meeting – be online on time, have a set schedule, and set clear parameters for requests. You want to establish manageable deliverables, considering the stressful circumstances of working during a health emergency. Don’t be overbearing. Remember to reach out to workers and board members for a quick chat to check in on them – it doesn’t always have to be about a specific project or to make a request. 
  • Prioritize Safety: Pension fund employees are working during a health crisis. Make sure they are following recommended health guidelines such as frequent hand washing, social distancing, and not running errands for non-essential job duties. Check to see if they have access to food and supplies and that they are working from a safe environment. Direct them to resources that can assist them if needed, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and other public health resources at their county or municipal levels. 
  • Support Tech: Does your staff have the proper equipment to work remotely, such as a personal computer, laptop, or smartphone? If not, consider letting staff borrow office equipment such as laptops, an extra monitor, or other equipment such as keyboards. Or, consider helping workers locate used yet reliable equipment from charities or to borrow from coworkers. Encourage remote workers to obtain reliable internet at home, if they don’t already have it set up. If your fund is large enough to have an IT department, make sure remote workers can communicate with that department for any assistance they may need in setting up their home office equipment. 
  • Provide Tools: Office productivity tools are applications that allow workers to view, create and modify general office documents such as spreadsheets, memos, presentations, letters, personal database, form generation, and imaging editing. They also include applications that allow teams to collaborate on tasks and for managers to monitor productivity. These apps may be accessible on their personal computers or smartphones. Plan administrators should consider standardizing a set number of applications to ensure everyone is using the same platforms. Also, make sure you provide resources for remote workers to download the applications. Here are 10 free or low-cost apps to consider: 
    1. Slack is a set of collaboration tools and services, allowing teams to easily communicate with each other.
    2. Clockify helps workers keep track of their time and gives them insight into their productivity performance.
    3. Beeminder is a motivation tool that helps users visualize goals and set measurable targets.
    4. Evernote allows users to capture, organize, and find their information across multiple platforms. 
    5. Google Drive allows you to create documents, slides, and spreadsheets and share them with team members.
    6. Google Calendar is a simple online calendar that allows users to create and maintain a weekly schedule in just a few clicks. 
    7. Dropbox offers a place to keep data secure and in one place. You can store all your documents on a cloud, and later access them from all your devices, anytime you want. 
    8. TeamViewer is a software that allows teams to connect remotely, so they can hold online meetings, make online presentations, and engage in online teamwork. 
    9. LastPass is perfect if you have accounts on multiple websites, and you keep forgetting and changing your passwords. 
    10. Canva is cloud-based design software that offers easy to use templates to create a variety of projects such as social media posts, brochures, business cards, mailers, magazines, newsletters, and other communications collateral. 
  • Encourage Mental Health Breaks: This is the first pandemic set in a social media world. It is an unprecedented and stressful time for remote working. Your fund’s staff are being bombarded with information, and much of it can be frightening. They are facing new ways of working while worrying about panic buying, staying healthy, and trying to communicate with loved ones they may be unable to visit. Give remote workers time to check on loved ones – even if by phone or email. Allow them flexibility in their schedules so they have time to go get the food and supplies they may need to restock their pantries. Some grocery stores are reporting long lines. And let them feel useful by encouraging them to give back during this crisis. Some studies show that feeling empowered to do something in times of crisis can help lower stress. Here are a few ways remote workers to give back while social distancing: 
    1. Donate to nonprofits helping to respond to COVID-19 - Encourage remote workers to collect any extra supplies they may have, such as disinfectants, hand sanitizers, paper towels, toilet paper, and bottled water for those in need such as the elderly and the homeless. Several nonprofits are working during the pandemic to locate these items and have set up collection sites. 
    2. Volunteer with organizations providing critical services – Many nonprofits are providing services to hard-hit and underserved communities impacted by COVID-19. If they are deemed essential services through a shelter-in-place order, they may need additional people to help distribute food and emergency supplies. 
    3. Advocate for those in need – Public pension fund workers are often accustomed to advocating to secure retirements for public workers. Ask your staff to consider expanding on their advocacy efforts during this time by being a public voice for social distancing and proper handwashing. Also, as they learn about the immediate needs in their communities, they can advocate for additional resources such as food supply, economic support, and expanded access to medical care. They can advocate through letter-writing campaigns to area officials, through social media posts, and through everyday verbal communication with family and friends.

If there is anything this health crisis is teaching us, it is that the even as we distance ourselves physically from each other, there are plenty of ways to carry on with the work of ensuring dedicated police officers, firefighters, and other state and local government employees earn secure retirements. If technology is in place and employers understand the need for flexibility during this pandemic, a lot of great work can still be accomplished.

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