Jul 07 2020

The Pivot to Mass Remote Work: How 7 Agencies Made the Switch

Federal CIOs supporting widespread telework during the COVID-19 crisis find that systems and staff are rising to the challenge.

Federal IT leaders have been preparing for years to face disaster scenarios that would knock their resources offline. But nearly no one anticipated a scenario that would keep employees from coming into the office for several months. 

When the novel coronavirus took hold in the U.S. in mid-March, agencies scrambled to support widespread work-from-home programs, and leaders were largely unsure what impact the move would have on productivity and communication. 

What they’ve found is that workers have adapted surprisingly well, and that investments in collaboration technologies and cloud tools in recent years have paid off in a big way. 

“I’m a firm believer that 80 percent of the job is showing up,” says Jerry Golley, CIO of the Farm Credit Administration. “But you can show up at home too. Even though they’re working from home, everybody is showing up and being there and solving the problems as they occur, and being very patient and working together to get things done.” 

Vaughn Noga, CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency, says that employees have found new ways to communicate and collaborate, and the agency hasn’t seen any drop-off in performance. “The tolerance for trying new technologies has gone way up,” Noga says. “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 technologies.”

Cybersecurity Concerns Rose as More People Connected from Home

The transition was not without its challenges, of course. Agencies needed to rapidly scale up their solutions to accommodate the explosion in demand. While some employees were already familiar with remote collaboration tools, others were using them for the first time, and that required widespread training. Some employees struggled with basic connectivity issues as their home internet service providers were bombarded by overwhelming demand. 

Cybersecurity was a top concern with so many people accessing sensitive data and systems remotely for the first time. Many agencies were able to use existing tools, including multifactor authentication, cloud resources and VPN connections. Still, agencies stepped up their training on phishing and other types of attacks, and IT leaders carefully evaluated which workflows could and could not be supported remotely.

“Anything done on the unclassified environment, by its nature, is not secure,” says Jack Gumtow, CIO for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “My goal has been to implement capabilities that provide a level of security that is commensurate with the level of work being conducted. Does that mean it is impenetrable? No, it doesn’t. What it means is that we have and are implementing tools, monitoring activities and educating our workforce on the risks and how to operate within that environment.”

Golley, Gumtow, Noga and IT leaders at four other agencies sat down with FedTech — remotely, of course — for in-depth Q&A sessions about their experience navigating the coronavirus crisis. The result: a series of candid, illuminating discussions about how agencies responded to the crisis as it unfolded, the impact of remote work on their operations and how lessons learned from the experience are likely to reverberate into the future. 

We’ll be posting two Q&As each week. Sign up to join FedTech Insiders today and hear what they have to say.