Oct 19 2020

How Federal Agencies Expanded Their Telework Environments

As the pandemic hit, leaders at the National Science Foundation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Defense Intelligence Agency retooled their approaches.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, only half of the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees teleworked on a regular basis between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019. It was also not a regular way of life. About half of them worked remotely on a situational basis, rather than taking regularly scheduled work-from-home days.

In mid-March, everything changed. The Office of Management and Budget urged agency heads to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” to federal employees in the Washington, D.C., region.

For agency IT leaders, it was a major shift. “A lot of leaders and managers are in situations like mine where they were predominantly working at the office,” says National Science Foundation CIO Dorothy Aronson. That was especially true for agencies that deal with classified information.

“We do not telework because we live and work in a classified environment,” notes Jack Gumtow, CIO of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Yet over the course of the spring, agency IT chiefs and their staffs scaled up cloud computing resources and ensured cybersecurity for their environments. They realized that shifting to telework did not mean that their agencies’ missions were disrupted.

“We found out that we could be equally as effective all-virtual,” says David Bottom, CIO of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Agencies Shift Gears to Support Telework Deployments

Some agencies were more prepared than others for a move to a large-scale telework environment. A couple of years ago, the NSF moved its headquarters from Arlington, Va., to nearby Alexandria. “When we did that, we prepared the entire staff to work remotely because we anticipated an outage for a couple of days,” Aronson says.

At the NSF, the agency had “developed a seamless mobile computer, which is a configuration of a laptop that enables people to securely access NSF services remotely,” Aronson says.

The core mission of the NSF is to receive ideas in the form of proposals from potential researchers, and the agency brings in groups of experts from around the world to review those proposals, Aronson notes. “When COVID happened, we went to 100 percent virtual. We learned a lot in the early days about how best to manage those and how to use Zoom in enriching the experience for the panelists,” she says.

Bottom notes that most SEC staff have the ability to access agency resources remotely. “Large chunks of the agency are doing enforcement, so they’re working outside the agency to begin with,” he says.

For Gumtow and the DIA, the move to telework was a little trickier. “Working in an unclassified environment at home is really not in our DNA,” he says.

The DIA had to shift to a telework environment within days, according to Gumtow.

“When this kicked off, I had fewer than 10 laptops in inventory that I could give out for loaner use,” he says. The agency has since stood up a VPN to support remote work.

The unclassified environment for the DIA is primarily an administrative domain, and the agency never saw more than 20 people on that system remotely. “We had to rebuild the back-end architecture — it was just not scaled to support” large numbers of users, Gumtow says.

The DIA decided to use Microsoft Teams to support remote workers. “We have thousands and thousands of events going on every day,” he says. “We have several thousand people on in our town halls, all around the world.”

EXPLORE: How is TIC 3.0 leading to enhanced security for teleworkers?

What Will Federal Telework Look Like Going Forward?

Agencies have seen the benefits of supporting remote work environments, such as the ability to support collaboration. “The ability to do voice and videoconferencing on demand has proved to be hugely practical and useful,” Bottom says. “The need to communicate actually goes up, not down.”

Users are also more productive in teleworking environments. “It’s just amazing how much more work you can pack into a day when you don’t have to travel,” Aronson says.

IT leaders also think that the shift will lead to a more widespread use of telework tools in the long term. “Once we return to what people call the ‘new normal,’ I believe there will be a lot more teleworking than what we’ve seen in the past,” Aronson says.

Gumtow adds: “I intend, because of what I’ve learned, to keep one third of the CIO workforce on permanent telework status at any given time.”

IT leaders are in favor of greater use of remote work tools. “The understanding that telework can be highly productive really helps many of our staff improve their work-life balance,” Aronson says. “I did not expect to, but I have loved working from home.”

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