Growing pains, successes in remote work during COVID-19

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Despite plans to incrementally push workers to return to the office, federal agencies still plan on allowing at least some part of their workforces to continue to work remotely due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

Elizabeth Ayer, a product manager with the General Services Administration's 18F program, said that such capabilities were built into her organization.

"We're a remote-first organization. We're distributed throughout the country, with no central office," she said during a recent FCW-hosted webinar.

Despite her colleagues' comfortability with remote work, there were some struggles as they adjusted to working through a pandemic.

In order to assuage concerns that people were not actually working while remote, Ayer said that the 18F developed tactics such as micro-messaging, having one-on-one conversations, and coming up with deliverable items to track productivity.

Thomas Ashley, the director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's IT Services Development and Operations Division, said that prior to the COVID-19 crisis, 98 percent of the agency workforce worked onsite within an office.

"The NRC has made significant investments in technology. Until about two years ago, we ran largely a desktop situation with no mobility capability," he said at the same webinar.

He added that only "a couple hundred at best" workers worked remotely before the crisis, but that after the federal government moved to maximum telework, the number of remote users skyrocketed to 1,400, necessitating some changes. According to Ashley, that number represents 45% of the NRC workforce.

"We worked using the [Trusted Internet Connection] guidance and with help from the Department of Homeland Security to set up things like the remote customer service solutions center to monitor traffic 24/7 with automatic alerting and intervention. Technology adoption happened at a rate I've never seen before."

Ashley added that thanks to the NRC's quick adaptation, 98% of the workforce had shifted to teleworking, with only those employees who needed to access classified materials remaining onsite.

The agency's summer intern program would also be entirely remote.

"We're onboarding them at end of the month as NRC employees in a fully remote capacity."

Other federal agencies like the National Archives and Records Administration took advantage of new funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to strengthen their telework protocols.

According to Deputy CIO Sheena Burrell, NARA received $8 million from the CARES Act.

Burrell said that many employees were still needed onsite to physically pull records off of shelves and scan and digitize them for public viewing, a large number of NARA employees were able to telework already when the federal government's mandatory telework posture went into effect.

"The CARES Act gave us additional funds for electronic equipment, such as purchasing laptops," Burrell said during a June 4 webinar hosted by Government Executive.

"We also had files that were [hosted] on outdated equipment and needed to move them to a cloud-based solution, so we needed additional security monitoring capabilities, because of new associated [security] vulnerabilities."

In a report released June 1, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Inspector General found that the pivot to mandatory telework was largely successful.

An audit of 37 respondents found that most functions at HUD were not severely impacted by the need to work remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Aging information technology systems and bandwidth concerns presented a problem, and those who needed access to paper files and facility access reported significant disruptions to their work, but overall interviewees said that the department was well prepared for telework.

"Although employees encountered some difficulties and processes were impacted, HUD was generally able to quickly adapt and continue performing its essential functions," the OIG wrote in its report.

"Many of the survey respondents indicated that switching to mandatory telework had no negative impact or only a slight impact on their work."

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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