It’s no secret planning and responding to the coronavirus pandemic has been a haphazard, chaotic and confusing exercise for some federal agencies.
But for Voice of America, the last few weeks of planning for the unknown — and then the reality — have revealed a silver lining.
The agency and its employees have quickly become a more technologically-savvy and agile organization, as VOA quickly stood up telework capabilities for a diverse group of journalists, broadcasters, and other employees.
“We moved both our systems and our employee skillsets in a matter of days,” Amanda Bennett, VOA’s director, said in an interview with Federal News Network. “We now have people who can do things they couldn’t a couple of days ago.”
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Planning for the coronavirus began back in early January, when VOA cut back on business travel and implemented quarantine procedures for its employees returning from virus-stricken regions around the world.
By early March, VOA had developed a multi-stage plan for the virus. First, Bennett and VOA leadership began asking their employees what it would take to keep up operations with a limited physical presence at their newsrooms.
VOA produces nearly 1,000 hours of broadcasts in 47 languages and 60 countries in one week, so the agency needed a plan for maintaining those shows with limited access to their physical newsrooms.
“Do people have the skills? Did we have the equipment? Did we have the bandwidth? Did we have the communication channels? Did we have a workflow?” Bennett said. “The answer to almost all those cases was ‘sort of.'”
The goal, she said, was to quickly shift as many employees as possible to telework. It wasn’t easy.
“We discovered that we could do it, but that we needed more laptops,” she said. “We needed more bandwidth to get in and out of the building. We needed to move some of our stuff to the cloud quickly. As we moved on we started realizing that people also needed different workflows.”
The agency reviewed its current policies, procedures and regulations and found ways to shorten them.
As of Friday, more than 80% of the VOA workforce was teleworking, Bennett said.
“We hadn’t really looked closely at that,” Bennett said of existing policies and telework agreements. “How could we move more quickly, legally, keeping well in line with the guidelines but make sure we do things quickly? We found lots of ways to order and pay for laptops.”
A new shipment of laptops arrived Friday, she said.
VOA took on a similar approach — one that Bennett described as “rapid, transparent and compassionate” — in communicating with its workforce.
VOA and its parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, began sending daily updates and emails to their employees.
“Telling people about how you get a laptop isn’t going to help you with [the sense that] people are scared,” Bennett said. “They want to know that other people are scared too, but we’re going to get through this, and here’s what we’re doing to reassure you.”
Regular and daily updates will continue, regardless of the length of the pandemic, she added.
So far, the approach to communication seems to be working. When VOA learned one of its employees may have been exposed to the virus, the agency immediately notified the others who had come into contact with the individual and sent them home for self-monitoring.
VOA also brought in a team to clean and disinfect its facility in Washington, D.C. — before the employee later tested positive for the coronavirus.
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“It’s really making a difference with people because they don’t have to go on a gossip circuit,” Bennett said. “They, I think, are starting to feel comfortable that when something happens, we’ll tell them and we’ll tell them right away.”
VOA’s new way of working and communicating has also sparked more collaboration among the agency’s disparate newsrooms. Bennett said she’s seen employees from the Russian service, for example, train their colleagues in Asian news rooms.
Individual VOA supervisors and managers are also stepping up, she added.
“It’s clear that there are amazing leaders throughout the entire organization that we hadn’t been recognizing. Now we can see them, because they’re rising up and on their own deciding what training can be done [and] deciding on how they might more creatively do their shows,” she said. “We’re really sitting down and trying to capture all of this because we’d like to maintain the gains we made when we get back to normal, whenever that is.”
Other agencies, of course, have adopted similar methods for communicating with their employees about their respective coronavirus responses.
A longtime federal employee praised the steps the Securities and Exchange Commission had taken to keep its workforce informed.
Messages from the SEC chairman are enthusiastic and detailed, said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more candidly about his agency’s response.
SEC divisional offices have hosted virtual townhalls, the employee said. SEC was the first agency in Washington to encourage telework shortly after an employee was tested for the virus.
Like VOA, NASA also has a four-step response framework for the coronavirus, which is posted online for the public.
“Our nation is facing a challenging time amid this national health emergency,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a March 18 message to the workforce. “The well-being of you and your families remains the top priority for NASA leadership. While we know this situation presents a number of difficulties for our missions, we are confident there is no team better prepared for doing hard things.”
Bridenstine described how the NASA Ames Research Center in California closed all facilities and ordered mandatory telework for all employees amid a “shelter-in-place” mandate from the state.
“Thanks to the leadership of Ames Center Director Eugene Tu, NASA’s mission continues with work on the supercomputer and ensuring advancement in mission-critical work while ensuring the safety of our employees,” Bridenstine said.
A March 24 message details the results of an agency-wide assessment of the work NASA employees could perform remotely, what work must be done on-site and what tasks should pause.
Bridenstine said he’ll host a recorded “ask the administrator” event later this week, where he and other NASA officials will answer employee-submitted questions.