Jul 15 2020

The Pivot to Mass Remote Work: EPA’s Mission Overcame ‘a Little Adversity’

The agency rapidly scaled up collaboration technologies to facilitate remote work during 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.

Vaughn Noga, CIO for the Environmental Protection Agency, says that business continuity has been part of the agency’s DNA for nearly two decades, with Sept. 11 spurring an enhanced and ongoing effort to ensure operations could continue in the face of disaster. 

The EPA conducts annual business continuity exercises across the agency, evaluates the results and incorporates lessons learned into its strategy going forward. But those scenarios have typically focused on a single region or the agency’s headquarters. Until the coronavirus crisis hit, leaders had never considered a scenario affecting all of the agency’s locations. 

An existing remote work program has helped the EPA to adapt, and the agency has dramatically scaled up its use of associated technologies — for instance, quadrupling virtual private network instances within a couple of weeks. Noga discusses how the agency has supported its workers during a time of great change. 

FEDTECH: What proportion of your agency usually teleworks?

NOGA: Prior to this, we were about 58 percent of the agency teleworking, and that wasn’t full-time telework. It was one or two days per pay period. We’ve got a fairly robust teleworking culture here in EPA. Now, we’re at 96-plus percent of folks who are teleworking. We still have folks who have to go into the labs, but we have a large number of people teleworking.

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

NOGA: A little adversity doesn’t stop the mission of the EPA. Employees transitioned to telework status, and they continued to do their jobs across the board. Before, we had deployed technology, including laptops and cloud technologies like Microsoft SharePoint, OneDrive and Teams. We had the capabilities in place, and we were able to exercise them immediately once we moved to fulltime telework.

We have redundant VPN solutions. We did experience some issues with that early on. For the first couple of weeks, we were battling some reliability issues due to capacity, moving from about 3,000 sessions per day to about 12,000 sessions per day. We worked with AT&T to fix that, and we haven’t had a significant VPN issue since the first couple of weeks. And the VPN wasn’t such a huge hit when we had issues because people were able to access tools like Skype, OneDrive and Teams through the public cloud, off the VPN. 

We made good investment decisions over the past 10 years — deployed technologies and implemented an architecture that allowed us to support the workforce remotely. Our employees transitioned to telework status and continued to perform. 

FEDTECH: What situations do your business continuity plans cover?

NOGA: Continuity of operations planning has been part of our DNA since Sept. 11. Exercise scenarios are conducted annually across the agency and evaluated. Lessons learned are used to improve our COOP response capabilities in the event of an emergency. But a scenario with all-of-government telework affecting all EPA locations was not considered. Much of the planning and preparations were for headquarters and regional-based scenarios. When you go to an all-government scenario like this, I don’t think that’s in anybody’s playbook. We’re rewriting the playbook for business continuity.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find the right solution for your agency's telework challenges.

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

NOGA: We have experienced short-duration events affecting a floor or building; for example, our William Jefferson Clinton-West building in Washington, D.C., flooded in 2006 during a 200-year storm. But this occurred before wide use of telework or the availability of mobile technologies such as laptops and mobile phones.

FEDTECH: Did your agency do any practice runs or other failover-type events to prepare for this kind of interruption in continuity?

NOGA: We routinely exercise teleworking capabilities and have redundant capabilities to support VPN connectivity. Prior to COVID-19, we routinely had about 3,000 VPN sessions per day. We quickly moved from 3,000 to nearly 12,000 sessions per day. During the first two weeks, we worked with our telecom providers to troubleshoot some VPN stability issues caused by the load. By the end of the second week, we had stabilized the service. We also were able to use cloud capabilities associated with Office 365 — SharePoint, OneDrive, Skype and Teams — that didn’t require our employees to be connected to the VPN to be productive. 

EPA CIO Vaughn Noga
We made good investment decisions over the past 10 years — deployed technologies and implemented an architecture that allowed us to support the workforce remotely.”

Vaughn Noga CIO, Environmental Protection Agency

FEDTECH: What’s the most unusual telework case in your agency?

NOGA: I wouldn’t call it unusual, but early on, we had our scientific research community working with large models and large amounts of data. They came to us and said the VPNs are having issues because they were moving large amounts of data back and forth. As it turns out, they were using their government-furnished laptops to crunch through a significant amount of data in the performance of their jobs. We quickly pivoted them to using VDI instances hosted at the EPA’s National Computer Center. This allowed them to continue to crunch through the data without having to move that data back and forth across the VPN. 

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

NOGA: The agency continues to centrally manage the distributed technologies — applying routine patches, actively monitoring the network and systems, and deploying new technologies that reduce common threat vectors. The infrastructure was set up so we can remotely manage machines wherever they sit. Remote support technologies are a part of our infrastructure. We’re still responding today like we responded in March.

FEDTECH: How did you expect the move to a work-from-home model to affect employee productivity, and how did those expectations compare with reality?

NOGA: I’m ever an optimist, and I was expecting what we’re seeing. Folks are coming in virtually, if you will. We’re getting the job done. You’re certainly working differently, so those natural conversations you have because of proximity don’t happen as frequently. So you have to change the way you work, and the way you communicate with folks. I haven’t seen a drop in performance.

FEDTECH: How have employees reacted to the changes?

NOGA: The tolerance for trying new technologies has gone way up. Microsoft Teams adoption has been tremendous. We were just piloting Teams a couple of months ago with 600 people. Today we’re at over 10,000 users. It’s been a rapid adoption, and people are more comfortable with using these new techs.

FEDTECH: How will this experience impact your policies and practices in the future?

NOGA: Everything we’re doing now will affect the continuity of operations plan going forward. The simple fact of onboarding new employees, that’s traditionally done in person. Now we’re onboarding new employees virtually. We’re shipping them their laptops and other tools they need to do their jobs, and we’re configuring them remotely, and we had to think about how to do that while engaging in social distancing.

I can’t speak to the policy, but I think with respect to people teleworking, people are more comfortable with teleworking after having done it for the better part of nine weeks.