Jul 21 2020

The Pivot to Mass Remote Work: CBP Found a ‘Great Opportunity to Learn’

For U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the coronavirus crisis yielded lessons that will inform how the agency supports workers in the future.

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.

Edward Mays, executive director of the Enterprise Data Management and Engineering Directorate at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says he would have been “apprehensive” a few months ago about scaling out the agency’s telework capabilities too quickly. But circumstances left him no choice. 

Like agencies across the federal government, CBP was forced by the coronavirus to send most of its employees home in mid-March and support widespread telework. To meet growing demand, the agency has stepped up its education and development programs, with about 7,000 employees across CBP receiving training in Microsoft Teams in a matter of just a few weeks. 

Mays says that CBP leaders are still evaluating the impact of moving so many employees to remote work. While productivity has largely remained stable for the existing workforce, he says, it’s not clear how the remote work environment will affect new employees trying to establish connections within their teams. 

Here, Mays discusses what CBP leaders are learning from navigating the crisis. 

FEDTECH: What portion of your agency usually teleworks?

MAYS: In my organization, we have about 20 percent of the population normally teleworking three days a week, but we’ve always been prepared for the larger telework in case of emergencies.

FEDTECH: Did you have any big concerns about making this transition?

MAYS: We’ve done this in terms of exercises previously. There wasn’t any large concern about that. I run business continuity for the organization, and we knew we could do telework. We have a really solid enterprise data networks organization. They’ve built out additional capacity over time. I think we were pretty much ready to go. But you never know what’s going to happen, because of dependencies across multiple organizations, across the Department of Homeland Security proper. I don’t think we expected anything negative to occur in going to telework.

FEDTECH: What technologies did you already have in place to support remote work, and did you need to adopt any new ones?

MAYS: We were using Cisco AnyConnect as a VPN technology, and we actually grew a little bit and moved into GlobalProtect. One of the things that GlobalProtect gave us was the ability to remain connected even when you’re away from the site. It’s important from the perspective of cybersecurity, because the newer technology allowed us to get updates to laptops and other mobile devices in a better manner than the previous tool. We implemented that to make sure we had a better cyber footing. 

And over the last year or so, we implemented Microsoft Office 365, and we’re pretty proud of that. We took on about 73,000 individual customers, updated 10,000 dynamic distribution lists, and we were able to do that in six months. Our mission in terms of trade, travel, law enforcement, border security, all those things, demands that we have that capability, and we were able to push that out to all those users. With that Microsoft Office 365 toolset, you get an incredible amount of collaboration tools, such as Teams, video streaming — just a plethora of capability.

Edward Mays
Since we’ve been doing this, we may have trained somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 people with the help of Microsoft. It’s been a really good partnership."

Edward Mays Executive Director, Enterprise Data Management and Engineering Directorate, U.S. Customs and Border Protection

FEDTECH: Have you seen a big increase in videoconferencing instances?

MAYS: Absolutely. Every meeting I’ve had this morning has either been on Webex or Teams. So we’re highly flexible. With some of our external partners, we actually use Zoom as well. Our meetings now are pretty much all virtual. I have a pretty large organization running the data center. Just a few people go in here and there to do hands-on things you can’t do from a remote posture. The work is getting done. We’re collaborating, sharing, discussing, all those things you want to do, whether it’s human communication, documentation reviews, engineering analysis, it’s all being done virtually. 

So far, it looks like we’re doing really well. I’m not sure what that means for longer periods. Right now, I have a pretty mature and robust workforce. These people have worked together for long periods of time, they know each other, they know how they operate and interact with each other. We’re onboarding people now, and I don’t know if there will be any impact downstream if we’re in this posture for a year. But for the near term, we’ve done exceptionally well.

FEDTECH: What did you learn about your agency’s ability to handle telework that you didn’t know before?

MAYS: Most of it is good. I would have been apprehensive, on a personal level, about scaling too quickly. One of the things I have under my purview is our enterprise operations center, which is the nerve center for monitoring all of our applications and infrastructure, both on-premises meetings in the data centers and in the cloud. Having those people not there, having that only minimally manned, was a bit of a concern. But people are adjusting and using the collaboration tools, doing their monitoring from wherever they are physically, and it’s worked out well. 

Obviously, there are some challenges. When you haven’t done something before, there’s some learning that’s required. It’s a little bit different from being able to turn to your left and 2 feet away would be a peer whom you could ask a question. We’re having to do that virtually, but we’re getting it done. People have become pretty comfortable with the reporting, the monitoring and all the follow-up actions for whether we have degradation or an outage or anything like that.

FEDTECH: What are you seeing across other business units in your agency?

MAYS: Inferentially, I think there have been a lot of requests for training in terms of collaboration tools, specifically Teams. I think we had classes that were co-produced by our Office of Information Technology and Microsoft that had over 3,000 people in them. Since we’ve been doing this, we may have trained somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 people with the help of Microsoft. It’s been a really good partnership. If they’re asking for that training — and I do see a huge spike in the use of collaboration tools — that means they’re starting to do that as well. It appears on my side that they’re using the tools and hopefully improving their productivity.

All the things we’ve heard thus far have been incredibly positive. A lot of my peers have said they’re really surprised that we can keep all the tools and systems up and running. Even our mission-critical applications, we look pretty much like we do normally. 

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

MAYS: Almost everyone has government-furnished equipment, and they are tunneling in with a VPN. They are using their standard PIM cards, and they’re using their mobile devices, like an iPad or a cellphone, that have derived credentials. So in terms of security, I think we have the same sort of security level as we have at the office. And we also reinforce the rules of the road. Just because we’re working from home doesn’t mean we don’t have to follow the same sort of policy guidelines as we do at work. We have to ensure things like screen lock are in place, people should not be behind you or monitoring what you’re doing. I think we’re doing well. Those things are in place in terms of cybersecurity for us. That’s because it’s a part of what we do. It’s stressed a lot. It’s in our DNA.

FEDTECH: Do you see this event changing practices in the future?

MAYS: That’s one of those questions that’s difficult. CBP is a very large organization. I’m a leader inside the Office of Information Technology. But I believe this event is going to force us to push more capability down to mobile users in terms of their phones, their iPads, that sort of thing, where that capability, which may have been more office-centric in the past, will be much more available to them on mobile platforms.

This is a great opportunity for us to learn, and to push out capability to frontline users, meaning the Office of Field Operations and Border Patrol and others. Just having that capability at hand inherently will cause some sort of organizational change and drive us to also become more effective and efficient. That’s what technology does for us. 

I look at it compared to 20 years ago, when you had to go to a department store. Today, if you need to save time, you just hop on Amazon and order the thing, and it’s here by tomorrow. I think technology will inherently change the way we do business in the future, and hopefully facilitate efficiency and effectiveness for our frontline teammates, which is where it really counts. 

I think for us, it’s really about what is required to complete the mission. That’s going to be the driving factor. Every organization, every executive director, every leader is going to have a slightly different world view and challenges. There are things that require you to be physically present. If you’re in Border Patrol and your trucks need to be looked at, you can’t do that really well remotely. And there are things that I do, like changing configurations on servers, that can be done remotely. It all depends on the situation.

FEDTECH: How are the workers adapting?

MAYS: I think it’s important in terms of teleworking to honor the boundaries of the workday. I work a lot, I’m pretty intense, and so my workday goes from really early to really, really late — I’m talking midnight, because the volume is so large. But as a leader, I’ve had to make sure that I’ve followed the rules of the road in terms of workday schedules for the people who work for me. I have to make sure that I’m aware that there are boundaries. When 5 p.m. comes, people want to go have dinner with their families. So that’s been important for us to understand as we’re working through all this, in terms of leadership and management, honoring and acknowledging the fact that schools are out presently, day care is hard to get, some people have elderly family members. 

I use the old military adage “Mission first, but people always.” It’s easy to task people when you really can’t see all the additional things that they’re having to deal with in this environment, and this definitely is a different environment than anyone has ever worked in before. We definitely have to make sure we take care of our people.

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