Adding telework to agency survival kits
A distributed workforce can keep essential services running after devastating man-made or natural disasters
Officials at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) were ruminating about “offices of the future” in early 2001. Telework dominated discussions as they pondered how technology might transform the way people worked. They envisioned obvious benefits, such as reduced traffic congestion and pollution, and latent ones, such as quality-of-life improvements for workers. Then terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Telework suddenly morphed from a work life policy initiative into a building block for TIGTA’s continuity-of-operations (COOP) plan, and the results could be the difference between overcoming a crisis or succumbing to it.
“Telework was basically a business exercise before 2001,” said Joseph Hungate, TIGTA’s chief information officer. “Now, we began looking at how it could contribute to the bureau’s survivability.”
Five years later, telework is the linchpin for the office’s full-blown COOP strategy, which includes a network of off-site data centers, laptop PCs for every employee and policies that delineate how employees can quickly resume operations even if a catastrophe destroys the physical headquarters or renders it inaccessible for extended periods.
“We feel we can be fully operational within a very short time” after a disaster, Hungate said.
TIGTA isn’t alone. As federal mandates for emergency preparedness push agencies to consider life-altering contingencies, telework is coming to the forefront of COOP planning. Interest in remote workforces is rising because agencies believe they can simultaneously address federal mandates for routine teleworking and better disaster planning.
“The same investment can cover both issues, and that’s a good thing for government operations,” said Chris Shenefiel, federal government industry solutions manager at Cisco Systems, which sells network gear for telework infrastructures and manages an ambitious internal telework program.
The combination of telework and COOP planning is gaining momentum. A survey by the Office of Personnel Management released late last year shows a 37 percent increase in the number of federal employees who worked from a home office or technology center at least one day a week in 2004. The OPM survey indicates that more organizations are considering COOP thinking in their telework programs because 43 percent of the respondents included COOP strategies in their remote-office initiatives.
A new telework survey conducted by CDW Government identified a similarly strong telework component in COOP planning. Eighty-seven percent of the telework respondents said they could continue doing their jobs if a natural or man-made catastrophe closed their offices.
A third poll, from the Telework Coalition, cited the examples of two organizations forced to move after the World Trade Center attack and a third that had to shut down its primary facility after Hurricane Katrina.
“Within a day or two they were all working from another location, not just because of a COOP program, but because they had a telework program in place,” said Chuck Wilsker, the coalition’s chief executive officer and president.
The message is also trickling down to state and local governments. “The technology is here, the software is good, and it works,” said Lori Waters, a member of the Board of Supervisors in Loudoun County, Va., who has been a regular teleworker for nearly a year.
But experts warn that COOP telework plans require more than just handing out laptop PCs to workers and hoping for the best in a crisis.
“Agencies think they can continue key functions if people just disappear to remote places and do their jobs for 30 days or more. To me that’s a snowstorm plan,” said William Mularie, CEO of the Telework Consortium. “We face threats today where a pea-sized sample of hospital-grade [radioactive] cesium-137 could make 10 square blocks of Washington, D.C., uninhabitable for years.”
Mularie advocates a fundamental decentralization of government agencies, facilitated by teleworking.
Successful telework/COOP planning is a volume issue, said Chris Alvord, CEO of COOP Systems, a consulting firm. In routine teleworking, perhaps only 5 percent to 10 percent of an agency’s employees may work remotely on any given day.
“If that number jumps to 90 percent, it’s going to stress networks and access to them,” he said. “Agencies have to figure out how to scale their systems to meet the larger numbers.”
The lack of focus on long-term shutdowns is partly because of cultural constraints, said Barry Scanlon, a partner at consulting firm James Lee Witt Associates.
“It’s tough to convince Congress or the OMB that 500 people at USDA or 20,000 people at EPA can’t miss a few days,” Scanlon said. “There’s never been an economic report done on the inability to get jobs done. But with [COOP-based telework], they would get even more work done and be available if their offices were shut down.”
Technology building blocks
A sophisticated technology infrastructure at both ends of a communications link is critical to keeping essential services running.
According to the Telework Coalition, the best COOP plans call for teleworkers to use no more than two different laptop configurations, which reduces service and support surprises for the information technology staff.
In addition to mobile computers, COOP teleworkers need a secure communications link to connect to other employees and agency data stores. In a recent coalition study, respondents indicated that among communications choices, they highly regard virtual private networks that use secure identity tokens.
The group added that many organizations are turning to voice over IP for phone service. VOIP avoids the cost of a second phone line for a home office and provides an extra layer of communications redundancy if a catastrophe thwarts traditional phone networks. VOIP can also support collaborative applications, such as videoconferencing, the coalition said.
COOP-savvy agencies use data mirroring to keep information available even if a disaster destroys the main headquarters or makes it inaccessible. Most enterprise-level storage management software can automatically send copies of data to multiple sites as users create information. The key concern with mirroring is whether the communications pipelines that transport the data are fast enough to work successfully, said Vic Berger, lead technologist and business development manager at CDW-G.
Agencies looking for comprehensive protection typically create a trio of data-storage sites: the main storehouse and two geographically distant mirrored locations. Some IT administrators believe a single mirror site is adequate, but two backup locations can more effectively handle the inevitable surge in demand if the main site crashes, Berger said.
The cost for the additional systems and network capabilities can add up. Moreover, the limited funds that have been earmarked for COOP plans have not included money for outfitting telework programs.
Fortunately, the financial news isn’t all bad. Many organizations say savings derived from reduced real estate needs and lower expenses related to furniture, utilities and building services can in some cases foot the COOP telework bill. For example, the Telework Coalition pegs savings at an annual average of $3,000 to $10,000 per teleworker.
Hungate said real estate reductions more than pay for TIGTA’s annual $80,000 telework budget, which doesn’t include laptops. Office space cuts created through increased telework saves $275,000 in fees in Atlanta and about $175,000 in Dallas. Telework also accommodated TIGTA’s growth in Washington, D.C., allowing the organization to avoid renting an additional floor’s worth of offices.
“The combination of real savings and cost avoidance represents nearly three-quarters of a million dollars,” Hungate said.
Not a test
TIGTA activated its telework-based COOP plan twice in recent years, once during a fire in its building and again when a suspicious package appeared at the Washington Post’s headquarters across the street. Both times, TIGTA employees moved to a nearby satellite office on the edge of the Beltway and continued normal duties. If a threat required a citywide evacuation, TIGTA executives would move to another site farther away, where executives would be able to access mirrored data stores.
The office’s COOP policy instructs workers to take their laptop PCs home with them whenever the Homeland Security Department’s terrorist threat level rises above the yellow alert status. Hungate said this could be the weakest link in the COOP plan.
“People don’t necessarily carry their computers with them,” which can sever the communications loop. “We’ve done drills where we had people go to an assembly point, but some left their laptops behind. We had to say, ‘Let’s think about acting differently in the future,’” he said.
Using their laptops, workers can log on to a special TIGTA Web site that is separate from the main computer system. “We use that server to tell our workers whether to come in to work or not,” Hungate said.
The department gives workers DSL routers for broadband connections from home and reimburses them for half of the monthly service fee. Insisting on DSL gives TIGTA communications consistency.
“We can program the router centrally and for security reasons not allow users to change their laptop settings,” Hungate said.
Fat pipes are essential
Loudoun County’s telework strategy is still in its early stages, but it’s a growing movement spurred by the positive buzz that new teleworkers communicate to fellow employees, Waters said.
For her work, she relies on videoconferencing software from a Swedish company, Marratech, which links her home office to county facilities. In addition to videoconferencing, the software displays an onscreen whiteboard for viewing and annotating text documents.
Although state law prohibits her from attending official board meetings electronically, she regularly participates in staff and constituent gatherings remotely via a fiber-optic communications link that developers installed while constructing her neighborhood.
“Not everyone has this capability,” Waters said. But as more people throughout the county gain broadband access, “I certainly anticipate we could have some emergency operations plans that would incorporate [telework] technology.”
Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at [email protected] .