Mar 01 2022

Federal Agencies’ Remote Work Technology Benefits Other Operational Areas

GPO, FCA are among those that found better customer service and other advantages from new products and processes added during the pandemic.

Teleworking wasn’t a new concept in the federal realm when work-from-home directives were issued in March 2020; even agencies whose missions required employees to stay onsite allowed some remote work.

Once it became clear that the remote/onsite mix was going to become permanent, however, those agencies quickly figured out how to make that hybrid environment successful.

Among them was the Government Publishing Office, a manufacturing operation that needs about two-thirds of its 1,600-member workforce to come into its facilities to print and ship publications such as the Federal Register and the Congressional Record, critical daily documents that record new rules and regulations and congressional actions.

“Craftspeople make up a significant portion of our workforce; they don’t even have email accounts. They don’t need the computer but to log in and do their timecards,” says GPO Director Hugh Halpern. “They’re press people, bookbinders, warehouse laborers — it really runs the gamut.”

The remaining employees teleworked via a VPN ­connection using laptops. This resulted in increased productivity, says Halpern; in addition, the number of federal agencies paying for GPO services rose by 11 percent.

GPO is now considering having some employees work remotely indefinitely, which may enable the agency to tap into an expanded talent pool and hire highly qualified, sought-after workers who live far from GPO’s location.

“It opens up the recruiting sphere nationwide, so we will be able to have some GPO teammates who work completely remotely,” Halpern says. “Part of that calculation is to really make sure those folks have the ability to get online. By and large, we’ve seen that be pretty successful so far.”

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Telework Soared at Federal Agencies Amid the Pandemic

Telework became the norm during the pandemic, with only 17 percent of the 2.2 million federal employees ­physically at their agencies’ worksites full time, according to the 2020 Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

About 45 percent of all federal employees — not just those considered telework-eligible — worked remotely at some point during fiscal year 2020, a 23 percent increase, according to OPM’s “Status of Telework in the Federal Government Report to Congress: Fiscal Year 2020.

“We all got the underlying technologies to make full-time telework for everyone possible,” says Jonathan Alboum, principal digital strategist for the federal government at ServiceNow. “People were able to buy the hardware, they were able to buy the software and implement them in relatively short order.

“But the other piece is the culture and the practices around how agencies work — and those things were less developed and less quick to change.”

RELATED: How will hybrid work evolve at federal agencies in 2022? 

Cloud-based Tools Enable Seamless Telework for Feds

Although federal agencies have ­historically relied on ­custom-developed systems, Alboum says, some are adopting end-to-end digital platforms. These offer security reassurance due to FedRAMP certification, and they are helpful in terms of scale, security and speed to develop and implement new requirements.

While some of these new platforms are ­custom-built for an agency, others turned to commercial upgrades to achieve better security and more speed.

Hugh Halpern, Director, Government Publishing Office
A lot of employees are going to be 100 percent telework, and we’re really looking forward to reaping the benefits.”

Hugh Halpern Director, Government Publishing Office

“Before the pandemic, and even during the first part, we were still using Skype for videoconferences,” says Farm Credit Administration CIO Jerry Golley. “We were actually able to hasten our upgrades to use Microsoft Teams about a year ago, and that brought a whole host of improved productivity to folks.”

In addition, FCA upgraded all of its laptops to Lenovo ThinkPads with Windows 10. “At the beginning of the ­pandemic, we had two different laptop models,” Golley says. “In the ­middle of the pandemic, we did a tech refresh. We replaced all laptops with brand-new laptops, a single model.”

Another way that agencies increased mission resiliency by ­eliminating delays caused by illness and other human ­capital factors, Alboum says: digitalized, automated workflows that pull in and ­process data received via email or that use a platform with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to create a ticket an employee would have done manually.

“This is why low-code platforms are very popular technology today,” he says. “They allow the democratization of application development. I’m putting the tools in the hands of program managers, analysts and others to build systems and apps.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Hear from IT leaders about hybrid work best practices. 

Agencies Turn to Proven Solutions to Facilitate Telework 

Early in the pandemic, FCA increased its bandwidth and doubled its Palo Alto NetworksGlobalProtect VPN security client licenses to give more employees a VPN connection.

The agency also digitized paper-based routing processes. Golley says this has streamlined the work and provided better visibility.

“One of the things you can do when it’s digitized is tell where it is in the route and customize the route midstream,” Golley says. “It allows people to not only see content but approve it via signature or authority approval, or make comments or changes to a document.”

65%

The percentage of federal employees who said their agency supported their ­well-being by offering expanded telework during the pandemic

Source: Office of Personnel Management, “2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Governmentwide Management Report,” April 26, 2021

FCA’s efforts to facilitate employees’ work needs have paid off. In the 2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ranking, produced by the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group, FCA received the highest score in the COVID Overall category across all agencies, regardless of size. This score ­measured the extent that employees felt their organization ­provided the resources to do their jobs during the pandemic.

EXPLORE: How did the National Science Foundation pivot to telework?

Federal Agencies Embrace a World with More Telework

COVID-19 variants have delayed many agencies’ plans to bring employees back into the office en masse. However, a June memo from OPM, the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration suggested arrangements could include “a balanced mix of working offsite and onsite,” or encompass “teleworking a majority of the time or nearly full-time.”

As such, with the underlying t­echnology to enable employees to ­perform work basically in place, ­agencies may increasingly pivot their focus to developing more formal ­policies and approaches on how full-time ­teleworking and supporting geographically dispersed teams will work.

“You’re going to have a variety. It’s not a one-size-fits-all government,” Alboum says. “But they have to be thinking about the return to work as a starting point for the future of work — which is more about how the mission gets done in a hybrid environment, with either ­different technologies or different ways of serving customers.”

For some, such as GPO, the success of their teleworking efforts over the past two years means that a flexible structure may become the norm.

“As we’re coming out of the ­pandemic, we said, ‘This is one of the aspects we implemented on an emergency basis that is really, really working,’” Halpern says. “We want to put it in place as a more permanent way of ­working at GPO.

“A lot of employees are going to be 100 percent telework, and we’re really looking forward to reaping the benefits. It’s a win-win situation for the agency, our teammates and the customers.”

DIVE DEEPER: Discover how to prepare technology in advance of a virtual meeting.

Illustration by john B. Hansen

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