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.
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.