Pandemic Telework: A Catalyst for Innovation and Modernization

In March, as the COVID-19 threat grew and Federal agencies sprinted to enable telework for nearly all Federal employees, they grappled with numerous challenges. Among them were procuring large numbers of devices, ensuring information security, expanding network capacity, training employees, shifting to new communications methods, and securing funding for all of the above.

Within days in some cases, and within weeks in others, almost everyone began working from home. The effort represented not only a technological and cultural shift in how government work gets done, but also a catalyst for innovation. Many say the changes over the last six months would have taken years to accomplish under normal circumstances.

“People have realized that telework is acceptable, and they’re productive doing it. That cultural shift would have taken years had it been left to the normal course of events,” said State Department Principal Deputy CIO Michael Mestrovich. He estimated that State’s three-month whirlwind of tech improvements in response to the pandemic advanced agency IT modernization by four to five years.

Flexibility and Creativity Made Telework Work

The approach to enabling large-scale telework varied from agency to agency. Agencies that had already enabled mobile work for large numbers of employees were in the best position to accelerate to full telework. Their main focus was on expanding network capabilities to handle increased traffic from outside agency firewalls. “Expanding the data center infrastructure that manages virtual desktop applications was also an important focus,” said Mahtab Emdadi, a Regional Sales Director at Dell Technologies who works with the State Department.

Agencies that were able to leverage existing technology investments were in a good position to pivot to full telework. For example, the Department of Energy had implemented systems over the last three years to enable 30 percent of employees to telework in a continuity of operations environment.

“To get to 80 percent [of employees teleworking], we started in mid-February. We had a pool of laptops that we use for travel, and the IT operations organization immediately started handing them out to make sure people could work from home,” said Rocky Campione, CIO at the Department of Energy.

At the State Department, where telework had been considered an accommodation in the event of a long illness or similar event, few employees had laptops. However, the department had a virtual desktop environment that it quickly ramped up. Within three weeks, the department doubled its virtual desktop capacity from 5,000 to 10,000, and then tripled it with newly ordered equipment. State also upgraded its firewalls and internet circuits.

“The pandemic was also a stimulus for creative problem solving. One example is the FBI, which is developing a highly secure mobile device in its Enterprise Remote Access Mobile Systems unit,” said Emdadi. Another is the Department of Homeland Security, which developed a derived alternative credential to enable logical access to the department network for new employees and contractors, as well as current employees whose personal identity verification cards expire while they are working from home.

“It doesn’t do you any good to have all this great technology if you can’t authenticate to the network – so that was a huge success story,” said Beth Cappello, Deputy CIO at DHS.

Agencies Prepare to Enable Remote Work for the Long Haul

Now that agencies have settled into full telework mode, their focus has shifted from enablement to technology optimization and modernization.

“As we go forward and hot wash our capabilities for the next event … we’ll look back at the fundamentals: people, processes, technologies, and examine what our workforce needs to be successful in this posture,” Cappello said.

At the State Department, the pandemic was a catalyst to modernize the infrastructure supporting remote work. “Working with Dell, the department implemented software-defined, cloud-ready infrastructure with Dell EMC VxRail Hyperconverged Infrastructure, which integrates storage, compute, and virtualization in a single, turnkey appliance,” said Emdadi. “The IT team gains tremendous efficiencies, because it doesn’t have to integrate and manage solution components individually throughout the lifecycle.”

At the Department of Energy, Campione asked, “How can we do it better?” He zeroed in on the department’s virtual private cloud capabilities and requested funds in the IT supplemental budget to bolster them. “There are obviously things that we can improve,” he said. “We were very grateful for the support in the building, in the government, and on the Hill.”

Energy continues to optimize its technology for remote work. “After the initial surge to get everyone online at home, we are focusing on tailoring the technology to meet the needs of specific user groups, such as creating digital personas based on individual profiles,” said Matt Walker, a Regional Sales Director for Dell Technologies who works with Energy.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned Offer a Roadmap for Telework Enablement

Emdadi and Walker offer best practices and lessons learned from their work with Federal agencies in the pandemic response:

  • Re-consider cloud/workload options given the expanded remote work environment. Some agencies are expanding their private cloud infrastructure to repatriate some workloads from public cloud providers. “A hybrid cloud approach that leverages both public and private cloud together gives agencies the flexibility they want with the enhanced security they need. Providing support for multiple cloud environments is essential for digital transformation in government,” Emdadi noted. “If agencies don’t have a private cloud, the pandemic is a catalyst to create one.”
  • Plan, but be flexible. Many agencies need to manage both on-premises and off-premises users, Walker notes. “Taking that into consideration upfront when developing solutions will help agencies manage varied workforce needs in the future,” he said.
  • Leverage existing investments, but don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. “A lot of existing investments can’t provide the capabilities agencies need, and trying to mold them into what they want can create more pain,” Emdadi said. “Agencies that have the greatest success are using the funding that comes with this event to start with a greenfield and build new capabilities that will move them forward.”
  • Interagency communication about what’s working and what’s not, procurement paths, use cases, and more is invaluable. “Getting that real-life perspective from agency counterparts is so important,” Walker said. “You don’t have to go it alone, and you don’t have to recreate the wheel.”

Pandemic Response Brings About Permanent Shift in Our Thinking

COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis for our nation and the world. The collective response to it is a tremendous opportunity as well, government and industry executives agreed. For Federal telework, technology existed to enable remote productivity on a large scale prior to the pandemic, but funding did not and attitudes hadn’t come around. All that has changed. Agencies that didn’t have substantial modernization budgets have accessed new funding, and the last few months have shown that the business of government can continue unabated with a widely dispersed workforce. COVID-19 has been a forcing function that leapfrogged several generations of cultural and technological innovation.

“We’ve demonstrated, from my perspective, that we can continue business operations and be successful, efficient, and effective, in a remote work posture,” Cappello said. “We are going to have a permanent shift in our thinking.”

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