“I now spend probably 80 percent of my time working in the unclassified environment,” says Jack Gumtow, CIO of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

May 06 2021

One Year Later, Agencies Turn Telework into a Permanent Part of the Process

NSF, DIA and FCA explain how remote work became an essential adaptation for the agencies.

Before 2020, just 28 percent of government employees worked from home at least one day each week, according to a report from Global Workplace Analytics. During the COVID-19 crisis, the number shot up to 92 percent.

While that figure will probably come down as the pandemic abates, the crisis has likely changed the remote work landscape in government forever, says Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister.

“One of the biggest lessons people have learned through all of this is that they can trust their employees,” Lister says. “The concerns over productivity were unfounded. We had proved in study after study prior to the pandemic that productivity tended to increase by 15 to 55 percent with remote work.

“Manager mistrust had been one of the things holding back remote work. I think that has been, if not removed, then at least thoroughly challenged.”

Here, tech leaders at three federal agencies share some of the most important lessons of the past year.

DIA Was Quick to Adapt to the Demands of Telework

When employees at the Defense Intelligence Agency were sent home in March 2020, they were accustomed to doing nearly all of their work in the agency’s classified IT environment.

“When you send 92 percent of your workforce home, productivity is going to be hampered, especially when you’re not used to telework or working in a nonclassified environment,” says DIA CIO Jack Gumtow.

In the first days after employees were sent home, many went through training modules that they are required to complete each year so that they’d have something to do. In the meantime, Gumtow and his team worked overtime to stand up nonclassified systems for official use.

The agency quickly rolled out Microsoft Teams for collaboration. Before the end of April, the agency was able to hold its first-ever, fully virtual town hall meeting, connecting thousands of government employees.

The organization relied on a virtual private network to enable users to securely access DIA information in a remote setting, as well as a USB or agent-based thin client that allowed users to execute on-demand, secure network sessions by connecting remotely to an onsite DIA workstation from their home computers.

Jack Gumtow, CIO, Defense Intelligence Agency
What we found is that a lot of our work could be done in an unclassified environment.”

Jack Gumtow CIO, Defense Intelligence Agency

The agency also allowed employees to take home Common Access Card readers, which gave them secure access to unclassified networks, applications and information. DIA also extended McAfee anti-virus software to employees’ personal computers.

“What we found is that a lot of our work could be done in an unclassified environment,” Gumtow says. “I now spend probably 80 percent of my time working in the unclassified environment. Prior to the pandemic, it was 99 percent in the classified environment.”

In a report about the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, DIA leadership draws several conclusions. Resilient employees and innovative leadership were both crucial to the agency’s success, the report states.

And above all, the experience of the past year proved that remote work is “doable,” even for an agency where telework had previously been considered a nonstarter.

In fact, Gumtow plans to keep one-third of his workforce working remotely in the future. “We found it has huge benefits for employee morale and employee retention,” he says. “And I think it’s going to have huge benefits for recruiting in the future.”

FCA Focused on Maintaining Its Team Culture

What do you call an apology written in dots and dashes? Answer: remorse code.

Sure, it’s a bit of a groaner. But Jerry Golley, CIO at the Farm Credit Administration, starts each day of remote work by sending a “dad joke” to his team via Webex chat. It breaks the ice for the day and gets his team communicating, which has been key to the agency’s success with remote work.

“Our collaboration tools have been reliable, scalable and absolutely needed,” Golley says. “If we didn’t have those tools, it would have been a very difficult transition. Instead, it was almost seamless.”

The FCA largely relied on Cisco Webex and Skype for Business (which is being phased out in favor of Microsoft Teams) to keep people connected during the pandemic.

For the most part, Golley says, the tech has performed smoothly, and employee productivity has remained high. The most common problem has been occasionally spotty Wi-Fi connections at employees’ homes.

To ensure security, the agency has implemented multifactor authentication for its cloud environment and requires remote workers to connect to FCA resources through a VPN.

Perhaps most important, Golley says, is the agency’s weekly security briefing, where FCA IT leaders share information about potential threats. “That has been the root of our success in security,” he says.

When the pandemic hit, FCA was just about to embark on a technology refresh, with 350 new Lenovo ThinkPad devices ready for employees. When it became apparent that remote work would stretch on for months, the agency opted to get the devices out of storage and into their workers’ hands.

A previous rollout took only a few weeks, but the pandemic slowed things down. For one, employees needed to come into the office to connect their new laptops to the network, and some weren’t comfortable doing that. Then, when tech issues arose, employees had to send their laptops in and wait for IT to resolve the problem. 

“The management of all of that was an unexpected workload,” Golley says.

Source: Global Workplace Analytics, “The Business Case for Remote Work: For Employers, Employees, the Environment, and Society,” January 2021

Golley misses the “cross-pollination” of ideas that happens when people circulate in a physical space. 

Still, he anticipates that agencies will draw on the lessons of the past year to support more flexible work schedules. 

“The plan at FCA is to bring everyone back to work later this year after they’ve had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and then the board may re-evaluate our flexible work policies,” he says.

EXPLORE: Find the right solutions for the future of work at your agency.

NSF Embraces Science at a Distance

Before 2020, Dorothy Aronson says, she “couldn’t have imagined” working from home for an entire year. Now, the National Science Foundation CIO sees remote and hybrid work as an important part of the agency’s operations for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve proved that we can continue the business of NSF remotely,” Aronson says.

The agency received an influx of funding to award grants for COVID-19 research, and Aronson notes that employees were able to carry out their regular duties as well as tackle the extra workload while working from home.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Aronson praised NSF employees’ high level of productivity, a trend that has held up over time. “Personally, I’ve become more productive and at ease,” she says. “In the beginning, I was productive because I didn’t know when to take a break, never leaving the computer. Now I feel much more at peace and have developed a natural work rhythm.”

The agency has relied on a mix of collaboration tools, including Zoom, Webex and Google Meet. Aronson says that the agency’s use of Microsoft Teams has skyrocketed during the pandemic, as people have learned how to use the platform to organize project work.

“I didn’t understand the value of this sort of communication platform before,” she says. “But it merges videoconferencing, instant messaging and file sharing. I can be working on a project and see whether other people involved in the project are available. It’s like you’re all working in the same room.”

The next challenge will be to transition to a hybrid work environment. “We have to achieve equity,” Aronson says. “We have to develop a culture that enables people in the office and people working from home to have an equally rich experience.”

Photography by Ryan Donnell