National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems

The Voice for Public Pensions


Fast Forward on the Front Lines: Texas

Labor Day was the goal for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas to return to the office. At least, it was until a late summer spike in Covid-19 cases forced TRS to crumple up that plan and start again.

Fast Forward on the Front Lines: Texas

Labor Day was the goal for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas to return to the office. At least, it was until a late summer spike in Covid-19 cases forced TRS to crumple up that plan and start again.

Now, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie thinks his team might be back together in the workplace “after Thanksgiving.” He's not ready to commit to more than that just yet, because there are too many unknowns. It helps that remote working is going well, he added.

“I've made it clear to everyone that work from home is here to stay,” Guthrie said in an interview, echoing comments he made in an April 2020 interview with NCPERS On the Front Lines. “It worked well for us during the pandemic. We saw you can work remotely and get the job done.” In addition, he has already seen evidence that organizations with a robust work at home policy have an edge in recruiting workers.

With 850 employees, 1.7 million members, and $200 billion in assets, TRS is a large organization by public pension standards. Ideally, Guthrie said, he'd like to see 75% of employees in the office and 25% working from home on any given day; he acknowledges that the exact mix will vary by function and department.

TRS shifted more than 90 percent of its employees to work-from-home arrangements after Covid-19 took hold in March 2020. Today, employees are permitted to come into the office when needed—but they have to take precautions. In-person meetings with members take place in conference rooms with plastic or glass barriers up.

“We're hoping to be able to have face-to-face meetings with members in counselors' offices, but we're not there yet,” Guthrie said.

An order from the Governor prohibits Texas employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated. Nor can employers collect information on how many employees are vaccinated. Guthrie said he had entrusted managers and business functions with determining who comes into work on a given day.

Benefits processing, for example, requires a lot of manual work, and employees in that department have been coming in regularly for the past four to six months. Other departments, like legal, can efficiently work from home. The investment management division has decided that it's important to have everyone in the office on Mondays for meetings and collaboration from a work culture perspective. Others are playing it by ear. Guthrie himself comes in three days a week.

As for members, they had gracefully accepted virtual counseling during the months when it was the only option, Guthrie said. Still, now that meeting in the office is possible, people are clamoring to see their pension and benefits counselors in person. It's positive, he said, that members are now more willing to accept receiving services remotely.

“We offered video conferencing before the pandemic, but people didn't usually take us up on it,” Guthrie said. “Now, as far as I'm concerned, we have a new tool in our toolbox.” TRS is refitting all of its conference rooms to allow for hybrid meetings in the future.

TRS is limited in terms of how much it can ask members—it can't inquire about their vaccination status or deny them admission to an office if they appear ill. “We can't tell them to stay home, but we can encourage them to do that. We do take temperatures at the door.” If a member has a fever but decides to continue with a meeting anyway, “it informs where we put them.” TRS has about six different conference room configurations to ensure the proper level of distancing.

The summer brought a brief return to normalcy. “In June, we started retaking walk-ins, but once the Delta variant started spiking, we required an appointment in advance.” Summer is traditionally the busy season for TRS because teachers typically retire at the end of a school year.

Many prospective employees are looking at an employer's work-from-home strategy or philosophy as part of the decision whether they want to work there or not. We've had people in communications who turned us down because they got an offer from an employer who said they could work from home 100% of the time.

Slowly but sure, he expects business travel to return. Some counselors have already gone out into the field for meetings with members. Likewise, the investment team has had limited due diligence travel. But frequent travel or long-distance site visits are still not back, Guthrie said.
You might also like: On the Front Lines: Texas; Fast Forward on the Front Lines: Minnesota; On the Front Lines: Pennsylvania.



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