Federal and state CIOs shared pandemic lessons and their thinking about return-to-office strategies during an October 19 panel discussion at the Dell Technologies Forum online event.

Speaking on the “It’s a Work-from-Anywhere World: How to Adapt for a Modern Government” panel were Nelson Moe, Virginia state CIO and director of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), U.S. Census Bureau Acting CIO Gregg Bailey, and moderator Cameron Chehreh, Federal CTO and vp pre-sales engineering at Dell Technologies.

The panel discussed what does the future of work – and specifically remote work – looks like now, and whether organizations have accelerated adoption of the necessary technologies to support the new hybrid workplace.

Pandemic Lessons

First, the panelists described the technologies they put in place to create a more productive environment for employees as they shifted from the office into the new work-from-anywhere model.

“We rapidly deployed our traditional VPN capacity from roughly 3,000 concurrent users to 35,000 concurrent users,” Moe said. “In addition were the corresponding internet connections because we had to adjust not just for my agency of 220 people, but also the 60,000 people that are now working from home which they hadn’t done before.”

Virginia was able to scale quickly because, as Nelson explained, the state has consolidated IT operations with VITA overseeing virtually all IT operations and spending, which proved to be a major advantage during the pandemic when quick decisions and procurements are important.

“We also had contract vehicles in place and suppliers were willing to jump through hoops to get things done,” Moe said. “We also at the time deployed Zscaler which is more of an application layer VPN, and then virtual desktops. And then we worked with suppliers like Dell and HP and our end-user platform individuals to make sure we had the right type of mobile devices for everyone that wanted to work from home.”

Due to VITA’s excellent relationships with its suppliers, it was able to quickly undertake the necessary technology rollout. “We also found out that agencies were doing a lot more remote work and digital signing so we rapidly increased our DocuSign service tenfold to make sure people could continue their workflow from home,” Moe said.

The Census Bureau’s Bailey recounted similar experiences, but described them as both good news and bad news situations with the pandemic.

“We were also conducting the every 10 year decennial census at the same time,” he said. “The good news part of it is we had established tremendous infrastructure to be able to adopt for the first time individual online responses to the census; and in fact it was quite successful. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents to this census were either online, on phone or in the mail. And that’s been the highest we’ve ever had.”

However, the bad news was that the pandemic shutdown occurred at the peak of the individual response online. “In fact, the Monday morning that we went to full telework was the highest individual response online that we had during the whole decennial. But we were able to handle it because we had prepared the infrastructure adequately,” Bailey said.

The Census Bureau had been using VPN and VDI technologies for quite some time for people to work remotely, and with the new reality of increased remote work the agency was able to engage those on a full workforce basis, quite seamlessly, especially since the necessary the bandwidth had already been prepared.

Return to Office

Panelists also shared advice for organizations who are putting together their return-to-office plans.

Bailey explained that at the Census Bureau there were different levels of lessons learned – some of them technical, but most operational.

“One of the lessons we learned was that having cameras and having people turn their cameras on is very important in keeping people connected, especially when it was such a long term event that this has been,” he said. “Seeing people makes a difference – maybe not quite the same as being together, but it certainly fills that gap quite a bit.”

The Census Bureau was also very concerned about people that were feeling disconnected, and how to work with them so they feel more comfortable and more connected. “We actually have a group that’s looking after peoples’ wellbeing, issuing 75 orders to local operations to do a wellness check on people. This resulted in some people being hospitalized,” Bailey said.

“The other thing that you realize is that although the overwhelming majority of people want to continue to work remotely as much as they can, there are some that really don’t want to, they really want to come to the office,” Bailey said. As a result, the bureau had to develop a strategy that would accommodate each group.

On top of that, he said, was a third category of employees that not only wanted to telework from home, but also want to be able to telework from anywhere. This created other issues because there were policies involved having to do with locality pay, and other factors that affect working out of region.

“So we’re in the middle right now defining those policies, getting the union on board, getting everything in agreement,” Bailey said. “We’re not finalized, but we’re a long way down that road, and trying to cross all those bridges.”

Moe also urged a degree of sensitivity when agencies are crafting the next set of work-location policies.

“Everybody dealt with this, and is dealing with this particular pandemic in their own way,” he said. “My advice is to make sure that you are much more sensitive and kind as you go through this process when you’re trying to work, and understand it was a highly disruptive event going forward.”

Returning to the technologies involved, Moe joked that Virginia adopted every conferencing system known to humanity. “Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans. So, you’ve got to be able to be adaptive and use those types of things, as you get your message across for collaboration,” he said.

He also reported that the downstream agencies that he supports – like transportation, DMV and social services – also saw their business models change during the pandemic.

“DMV here in Virginia went with an all-reservation based system,” Moe explained. “That meant from a technology perspective the reliability of their data circuits and their systems had to be much higher because you couldn’t just walk in the next day if you missed your appointment, you had to reschedule it.” So for lessons learned, the requirement for, and the connection to, digital services for the citizen going forward has vastly increased.

Moe concluded with observations about the new workforce environment, and the new reality of a hybrid workforce.

“There is now a strong desire for hybrid work across government, but obviously some agencies can’t have 100 percent remote work – like the department of corrections – but some agencies can,” he said. “That setup means that the connectivity, and being be able to provide laptops and technology to people all over the state, is something not even in the Commonwealth of Virginia can do.

Moe also said the pandemic has heightened cybersecurity concerns, and indicated Virginia is looking at technologies for a zero trust framework, and cyber-recovery from ransomware – because with the latter, as we all know, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.