Part 4: What’s Happening Today with Federal Distance Work?
[Note: This column also appears in Washington Technology. It is the fourth in a series on how the COVID-19 crisis has changed how government works. Emily Craig and Michaela Drust, IBM, are co-authors of this column]
But will individual telework only be seen as a workaround until everyone returns to the office, or will agencies consciously decide to change how work will be done from now on, as distributed teams working from anywhere?
A recent Washington Post article cautions that even with a vaccine, the coronavirus likely will remain with us for the long haul and that coping with it will require long-term thinking. It quotes University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Cobey, saying: “The question is, how do with live with it safely?” Similarly, Dr. Natalie Dean, a disease biostatistician at the University of Florida says that what we saw as normal prior to the coronavirus no longer exists and that we have to find different ways to adapt and work.
Pre-Pandemic Planning Made the Transition Easier. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, some federal agencies had instituted telework capacity as a component of their continuity of operations plans. As a result, they had the laptops, bandwidth, and security arrangements at the ready. Several agency chief information officers noted that prior technology investments were paying off, and that new, emergency funding from Congress was bridging any existing gaps.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told MeriTalk that 58 percent of its 14,000 employees teleworked at least part-time before the coronavirus outbreak. By late April, 96 percent of its workforce teleworked fulltime. EPA credits its long-term modernization efforts for being able to ramp up quickly, even though it had to bolster its virtual private network and network capacities and buy more laptops for employees.
Similarly, other agencies also were able to manage the surge, according to MeriTalk – 900,000 defense employees moved to telework; 100 percent of the National Science Foundation’s staff moved; 95 percent of the staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many more agencies.
Other agencies found they had to ramp up their capacity to operate outside the traditional office environment. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, quadrupled its telework capacity by mid-May, according to Federal News Network.
Agencies with a History of Distributed Work Didn’t Lose a Beat. Agencies that had a long-standing culture of distributed work teams seemed to make the transition more smoothly. NASA has a history of bringing personnel and programs together across multiple geographically dispersed centers to deliver the space mission. Centers and headquarters had conducted remote work experiments to test system capacity and better understand the readiness of its culture and processes.
As NASA began its COVID-19 planning, it was under the pressure of a SpaceX scheduled launch from the historic pad 39-A at Cape Canaveral a scant few months away. (NASA and SpaceX successfully launched the Crew Dragon at the end of May.)
As the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 were reported, NASA senior leaders across the agency were deeply engaged in planning to work remotely. During mid-February, it conducted an agency-wide remote workday to test the ability of its VPN to handle the user volume. Within just few weeks of the test, personnel at headquarters and in multiple field centers were beginning to work remotely, and NASA estimates that approximately 90 percent of its federal personnel are currently teleworking.
While NASA initially made telework decisions on a center-by-center basis, they realized they were tackling a consistent set of issues such as visitor access and availability of cafeteria or onsite day care. Within three to four weeks, it established a response framework with multiple stages to communicate consistently. The framework allows different centers to be at different stages of distance work based on local conditions. After several weeks, the agency surveyed employees to understand the effectiveness of the remote work tools as well as the overall experience working remotely.
Senior NASA leaders continue to meet multiple times per week, dedicating a significant number of hours to planning as well as ongoing communication. Ranging from Q&A materials, town halls, videos, agency-wide events and center-specific events, “we had to put our backs into it,” says Jane Datta, NASA’s chief human capital officer. “We wanted to do this right. People came first.”
Some Agencies Found Themselves More Productive. To their surprise, several agencies found that they are just as, or more productive in a telework environment. Chief information officers for both the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Agriculture noted in Federal Times that productivity had not dropped. In fact, DOT CIO Ryan Cote said his agency had an absolute increase in productivity. A Federal News Network survey of 1,200 federal employees in early May found that “52 percent said they were more productive at home than the office, while another 40 percent said their productivity was about the same.”
In addition, some agencies found remote video meetings more effective than in-person meetings. For example, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) chairs multiple large stakeholder groups to support policy development. One group, with more than a dozen members from the largest civilian agencies, had a multiple-day in-person workshops scheduled to start three days after OPM moved to remote work. The OPM team shifted to a conference call and rapidly restructured the workshop to use online collaboration tools. It shifted to shorter working sessions, broken into multiple parts, and created more facilitation prompts to engage participants. The workshop had greater attendance from the agency participants, who were no longer facing the logistical obstacle of getting to OPM. The workshop results also improved with overall higher levels of contribution through discussion as well as an online chat feature.
Interestingly, the Social Security Administration, which was slow to embrace telework, found the backlog of pending cases for new benefits and appeals of benefit denials dropped 11 percent since the agency mandated full telework on March 23. There were similar productivity gains noted at the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Will Telework Become the Norm Instead of the Exception? Given the positive experiences in some agencies, remote working practices may become the norm for some agencies. For example, the Department of Defense (DoD) says will continue to implement teleworking flexibilities even after the worst of the crisis is behind us. According to NextGov, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that “Pentagon officials who are able to telework can expect to do so for ‘as long as necessary’ and until the U.S. is ‘beyond the coronavirus crisis.’” Esper also encouraged increased cyber vigilance and awareness for DoD employees as remote work has the potential to expose vulnerabilities in the agency’s network.
For members of the intelligence community, the pandemic has demonstrated the need to rethink work arrangements for personnel who manage classified information. When faced with the challenge to swiftly institute telework, several intelligence agencies were unable to go 100 percent remote. They required some employees to work on-site in shifts to comply with social distancing guidelines. Subsequently, The Intelligence and National Security Alliance organized a working group to explore how the intelligence community can allow workers to safely access classified information on-site while also expanding telework opportunities. Furthermore, some intel agencies plan to re-evaluate how information is classified and what implication potential over-classification of some information may have on the ability to work remotely.
Looking ahead, certain segments of the federal government will likely reconsider how many employees need to be physically on-site to do their jobs and analyze how remote working capabilities may actually increase employee productivity and satisfaction. Despite the challenges ahead, it is evident that telework opportunities might become more accepted and embraced by the federal government, who had no choice but to adopt and adapt to remote work in order to protect the wellbeing of federal employees and contractors.
Note: This post is the fourth in a series on distance work:
Future columns will further explore the kinds of changes that the shift to distance work and distributed teams are having on work, and how different agencies are adapting.
Graphic Credit: Courtesy of tilaslip via FreeDigitalPhotos.net