GSA sees telework as opportunity to recruit tech talent, reduce office space needs

More than a month into the coronavirus pandemic, federal employees have settled into a more flexible workplace culture that, for some agencies, had been a tough sell.

Over several weeks, agencies have loosened restrictions on their telework policies and overhauled their IT infrastructure to support a greater volume of employees working from home.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has mapped out a phased approach to reopen agencies and the IRS has already brought about 10,000 employees back to the office to complete essential tasks.

But the General Services Administration, already the biggest adopter of telework in the federal government, has recently seen its workplace culture pay off in unique ways — such as reducing the need for office space and hiring in-demand talent that might not otherwise work for the federal government.

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In other words, Dominic Sale, the assistant commissioner of solutions at GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, said the agency and the way it operates won’t necessarily return to business as usual once the pandemic subsides.

“The government has really shifted on a dime in how we’re interacting with each other. If anyone knows anything about government, it does sometimes take a crisis to make us move quickly, and then it’s really hard to change after that,” Sale said Wednesday in a webinar hosted by NextGov. “So we’re going to develop some habits and processes, then we’re then going to say, ‘Well, this is how we do business now.’”

As a leading telework agency, GSA has invested considerable resources in an IT infrastructure to support this much telework.

Recent data from the Office of Personnel Management on telework participation in 2018 shows that GSA had the most active telework program in government, with at least 81% of its employees working from home at some point in 2018.

But those investments so far have already paid dividends — allowing the agency to save more than $24 million in real estate costs and more than $6 million in administrative costs.

And with the pandemic forcing many agency employees to telework, Sale said the continuity of operations that it provides has helped build trust in the program.

“Within GSA, it feels to me like the prevailing sentiment is, ‘Wow, telework actually really works.’ So I think there’s going to be more of a stress in the future, and more trust in working remotely as part of how we do business — more so than it was before,” he said.

While agencies continue to compete with the private sector for in-demand tech talent, Sale said full-time telework gives TTS the flexibility to recruit and hire IT personnel that work outside of the Beltway or major metropolitan areas.

“The tech talent in Kansas doesn’t have to get up and move to Washington, D.C. or to one of the major city hubs,” Sale said.

Tapping into tech talent outside of major city hubs, he added, also keeps costs down, because the agency doesn’t have to consider locality pay adjustments for those employees.

“There’s a lot of reasons we’re engineered this way, and it’s really prepared us for this crisis at hand,” Sale said.

Thanks to Congress authorizing nearly $46 billion in emergency agency spending under the CARES Act, the Justice Department has also expedited the launch of a grants database that will allow officials to sign off via electronic signatures — a major goal under the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA).

Katie Sullivan, the principal deputy assistant attorney general of DoJ’s Office of Justice Programs, said the database was scheduled to go live in October, but after receiving supplemental funding in the CARES Act, personnel from the offices of the General Counsel, Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Information Officer came together to expedite the launch.

“That was a lot of work that people did in a very short period of time, but we were able to transfer to that a little quicker than we thought we would,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sale said it’s been “a long time,” even before the pandemic, since he or his boss, TTS Director Anil Cheriyan, has had to sign a hard copy of a document that needed his approval.

While GSA has led the charge in modernizing its workplace culture, larger technical challenges remain.

Among them, Sale said agencies have turned their attention to improving identify proofing and verification at a time when public-facing agencies have seen a surge in demand for their services.

“I think coming out of this, inevitably we’re going to see a lot of opportunities taken by fraudsters and bad actors, and we’re going to feel the need to really step up our efforts in this area,” he said.

The IRS, for example, sent out more than 130 million pandemic stimulus payments in its first month worth more than $200 billion.

Meanwhile, 120 million people have checked on the status of their payment through an online tracker, and more than 10 million people have updated their banking information in the past two weeks.

In addition, the Census Bureau, while urging Congress to push certain statutory deadlines back to April 2021, so far has seen a higher than expected self-response rate via the internet.