Jul 07 2020

For NSF, 'Preparation Paid Off' in the Pivot to Mass Remote Work

Previous disaster experiences and existing tools helped the National Science Foundation rapidly respond to the challenges of the coronavirus crisis.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series of Q&As FedTech has conducted with government IT leaders on how they pivoted to remote work. For more entries in the series, click here.

In recent years, the National Science Foundation has seen its data center knocked offline when a transformer blew up, has experienced flooding and has had a construction worker cut its internet connection. The agency even had intentional disruption when it moved to a new headquarters building in 2017.

None of these events quite compare with the coronavirus crisis, which forced NSF to send nearly all its employees home. But these previous experiences did prepare IT leaders to respond quickly to emergencies and plan for the unknown.

A large percentage of NSF employees were working from home at least one day a week already, using tools including Cisco Webex, Zoom for Government and VPN connections. These experiences and technologies helped leaders and employees rapidly adapt to a work environment that was turned on its head overnight. 

Collaboration sessions may be interrupted by the occasional barking dog or wandering teenager, but NSF CIO Dorothy Aronson says this contributes to a “natural” work environment that people are learning to love. 

In this Q&A, Aronson discusses how NSF responded to the coronavirus crisis, the impact on employee productivity and lessons for the future. 

FEDTECH: What situations do your business continuity plans cover?

ARONSON: We have a continuity of operations plan, a COOP, based on the notion that if the internal data center becomes unavailable, what would we do to recover? That has served us beautifully for years. Of course, it continually changes with the technologies, so the original COOP was based on the idea that there was a central data center and that everything operated there. We’ve had to modify that to cover movement to the cloud. It’s basically this notion that if, for whatever reason, the NSF staff can’t reach their IT computing facility, the Federal Information Security Management Act requires you to practice that recovery every year. We’re very successful with that. We know that we can recover our data center, and how long that takes. All those things are not mysterious.

FEDTECH: What situations have you actually experienced? How did the COOP manage in those circumstances?

ARONSON: We’ve had situations where, for example, a transformer would blow up. This happened in Arlington, Va., in our previous location, where all the power to our data center became unavailable. We have an uninterruptible power supply, extending the period of time we have to respond to an outage like that. So we have alternative power sources that we’ve had to leverage. We’ve had floods. We’ve had internet outages, where a construction worker has cut one of the connections to the internet. We always have two internet connections for that reason, a primary and a failover. So everything is built with redundancy in mind.

The current situation is the opposite of a COOP. The data center works, but all the people left the building. But we also have a lot of experience responding to emergency situations. When there’s a snow day and everyone has to telework or there’s a furlough, those aren’t really COOP conditions. They’re changes in our operating posture for various reasons.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how to make telework a success at your agency. 

FEDTECH: How have those experiences prepared you for this situation?

ARONSON: That’s where our preparation has paid off, because that’s where we as an organization know how to pull our team together and coordinate things like communications to the public — to our internal customers and the external community — coordinate network activity, desktop support, security response, applications response. All of the IT services we provide shift a little bit as a result of this. What we have practiced over and over again is coming together as a team, figuring out, examining the current emergency situation and responding.

Dorothy Aronson
What we have practiced over and over again is coming together as a team, figuring out, examining the current emergency situation and responding."

Dorothy Aronson CIO, National Science Foundation

FEDTECH: What proportion of your agency usually teleworks?

ARONSON: About one-third of our organization teleworks on Fridays. The vast majority of us had a telework agreement in place prior to the COVID crisis. There’s a situational telework agreement, and there’s telework where people pick out routine telework days. 

Most positions in NSF are telework-eligible and had telework agreements in place as of March 10. Fifty-six percent of the group has a telework agreement that’s coded as regular recurring telework versus periodic. Thirty-five percent of that group has a telework agreement that’s situational. We’re at 100 percent telework now.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how to prepare technology in advance of a virtual meeting.

FEDTECH: Were you concerned about your remote work technologies standing up to increased use?

ARONSON: We were not really worried — at least intellectually. We had numbers to prove to us that the capacity of the network was sufficient. And so we did not feel the need to invest in a practice for the COVID-19 situation. And in fact, we didn’t really have significant network issues. There was one tweak that we had to make to the network because of the number of people simultaneously doing certain functions. That required two adjustments. One was that we notified people. We said, “Hey, everybody can’t make this same connection at the same time.”

The other thing we did was that we turned off certain high-bandwidth network activities that people could do using their own networks. We connect to our internal network using a virtual private network. If you’re on your computer and you want to go to YouTube for training, we’re recommending that you turn off the VPN first. Behavioral changes like that really made a huge difference.

FEDTECH: What were some tools you had in place that helped you make this transition?

ARONSON: We were in the midst of deploying Zoom for Government when this happened. We expedited the move to Zoom a couple of days before we went to 100 percent telework in mid-March. It has caught on like wildfire.

We had started an asynchronous meetings working group to figure out how we could best serve communities with virtual and semi-virtual meetings. At NSF, we gather together groups of experts from around the world to review funding proposals and make recommendations about which are the best ones, and these panels were largely in person. So the business of NSF involves a lot of people traveling in and out of buildings and conferences. This asynchronous meeting working group is responsible for the Zoom implementation, and it is also responsible for putting up an external-facing web capability that gave instructions to panelists and people who wanted to have meetings with NSF. And that has been a tremendous benefit.

We also very rapidly implemented and adopted an electronic document signature and routing methodology. It’s for anything you want to send throughout your organization to various people for their approval and review, and finally an electronic signature. I look a lot at procurement docs. As CIO, I’m responsible for IT purchases, performance reviews. These require internal signatures and external signatures. We work continuously to modernize, so we always have new products in development and moving to production. This document signature product was ready to move to production as we transitioned to 100 percent telework, and we expedited implementation.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: How to ensure your VPN can handle work-from-home traffic. 

FEDTECH: How are you ensuring cybersecurity during a massive increase in telework?

ARONSON: We’re still using multifactor authentication. The thing we’ve become more aggressive about is remotely patching workstations. We’ve increased our ability to remotely patch devices, whether or not they’re on the VPN. We used to rely on the VPN as the conduit to push these patches out. We have gone to more frequent patching of remote devices, and we’ve found a way to do that with more agility, using cloud capability.

FEDTECH: What were you expecting in terms of employee productivity when you made this transition, and how did those expectations match reality?

ARONSON: I knew that people would be able to use the technology. I didn’t know about the impact of things like fear, having relatives who were ill, worrying about your own relatives — all of those things are very scary. NSF’s leadership has been incredibly gracious, right from the very beginning, because they have put the staff first. In a very stressful situation, they have really helped us make this transition.

I think people love to work. What I saw in the first few weeks was people just working endlessly, not being able to sleep, because of all the things they were worried about at work. They wanted things to carry on as if nothing was going on, almost. Things have relaxed since then, but when we ask people, “You’ve been working really hard. What would you like to give up?” people are very reluctant to give things up. I’m not a psychologist, but I believe work is a distraction. People want to focus on things they can manage and control in a world that’s full of uncertainty. I’ve been on many Zoom calls where toddlers or kids come in. I’m getting to know all of those people. And I like it. I believe it’s an enriching experience to be in a natural work environment, like working from home. That’s been my experience.

FEDTECH: Do you see telework expanding once things are back to “normal”?

ARONSON: Oh, yeah. I was one of these people who never teleworked. All of my work is with people. I felt there was no way I could take that home. Having everyone telework teaches all of us doubting Thomases that, in fact, it’s an incredibly productive environment. And it can continue, and it should continue. And we shouldn’t necessarily be stressing people out with two-hour commutes in each direction. In my view, we will maximize people’s productivity going forward if we — I’m not even saying “if” — when we go toward the future, there’s going to be much more telework. A great thing about that is we can recruit people from across the country. We don’t have to focus so much on our immediate vicinity, and people don’t have to live within the Beltway to have a job supporting NSF. 

I think the most important thing is, we don’t know what the future is going to bring. What we do know is that we can be flexible and responsive. We have to try to imagine the future so we can prepare for that, but we also have to understand that the future we’re imagining is not the future we’re going to get.

READ MORE: Learn how to make federal telework a long-term success.