As a deputy director in Pittsburgh’s Innovation and Performance office, Heidi Norman has helped lead the city through the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
But even as city workers remain confined to their homes instead of returning to their offices, Pittsburgh has become more prepared to engage with the “future workforce” than ever before, said Norman, who was recently named the city’s acting chief information officer.
City employees “found a groove” in remote work after the initial sudden shift caused by the pandemic, she said, thanks in large part thanks to a “war room” of officials like Norman and her predecessor, Santiago Garces, who left the city last month to take an economic development role in South Bend, Indiana.
Daily in-person, then virtual meetings between Norman, Garces and their team focused on delivering basic services — including laptops and other devices — to city employees, which Norman said she’ll continue to prioritize in the new year.
“What we’re focusing on for next year is continuing to focus on the fundamentals of our infrastructure, devices and network to ensure that regardless when people are working onsite or they’re working remotely, they have reliable, high-quality and secure access to the information systems that they need,” Norman said.
At the onset of the pandemic, however, even simple civic processes needed refreshing, Norman said. The city’s environmental services agency, in charge of recycling and waste management, required new internet-connected tablets to manage new routes that changed as a result of fewer people going into office buildings.
Similarly, Norman said, Pittsburgh revised a long-term contract with Dell that replaced one-quarter of the city’s computers every year to deliver laptops, rather than desktops, as the company had annually prior to the pandemic.
“We made sure that [environmental services employees] also received mobile devices — in that case it was tablets — so that they could quickly adapt to new schedules and routes,” Norman said. “Something as seemingly simple as a garbage pickup route…suddenly changes where trash and recyclables are in the city.”
The city also delivered 20 Wi-Fi hotspots to workers who couldn’t access the internet from their home, and created VoIP-based call centers so that workers could take 311 calls from their houses. While the pandemic is far from over, Norman said, Pittsburgh is in a more flexible place than it was a year ago by being able to deliver services without having to gather everyone in a single room.
“There was crisis management, then we said ‘OK, let’s get into a groove here’, and now we’re looking toward the future,” Norman said. “What’s very clear to us is that there is a bit of a silver lining with coming out the other side of this crisis.”