Agencies spent billions of dollars in CARES Act funds to prepare for mandatory telework, and after an initial breaking-in period, most federal employees have settled into new routines.
Some of those new routines might be here to stay, according to IT security officials at several agencies who say the feasibility of long-term telework has opened the door to a reimagining of the civil service.
Anthony Bailey, the acting deputy director for the Energy Department’s Cyber Intelligence Directorate, said Thursday that long-term pandemic conditions have sparked conversations about what a “federal employee 2.0” would look like in the intelligence community.
“What is a worker, what is an employee, is going to have significant effects on us and the government, whether we know it or not, we’re just not having those conversations yet,” Bailey said in a webinar hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC).
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Agencies that embraced telework before the pandemic saw employees take advantage of its perks. Staff could save time and money with less commuting and have more control over their work-life balance. Feds have also told their agencies they also feel more productive teleworking.
However, Bailey said the prospect of long-term telework in the federal workforce raises some tough questions, such as whether feds should still accrue the same amount of sick leave as they did when they were working full-time in the office.
Congressional committees that have held hearings on this issue have also raised questions about what locality pay means for long-term teleworking employees that live several states away from their agency’s physical office.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers have revisited the idea of moving more agency headquarters outside the D.C. metro area.
Ray Letteer, the Marine Corps’ compliance branch deputy chief, said the service’s top leadership has considered setting up satellite locations that would give personnel access to classified systems.
“It is going be interesting to see how we do transition our workforce. Even the commandant is saying now that we need to relook at how many people do I really need to have in the offices, how many people can I have at satellite locations, if they need access to classified systems or such,” he said.
These conversations are only now coming into focus after five months of mandatory telework for many feds, Letteer said, because agencies have had time to reevaluate what worked in the ad-hoc setup and what didn’t.
The Marine Corps, for example, because of planned network updates, “kind of accidentally fell into success” with mandatory telework. But Letteer said other corners of the federal government may not have been so lucky.
“I’d like to be able to say that ‘Oh, yes, we saw this coming, we knew what we were doing and adjusted the network accordingly. No, the reality of the situation is, I think, like everybody did, is if you were planning for expansion and were planning for more of a distributed work environment, you’re probably in a better alignment for this than those that did not,” he said.
Even though, IT advisories have evolved over the course of the pandemic.
Letteer said the service sent advisories in March advising personnel to limit the size of email attachments, but following up with notice in April clarifying what employees could and couldn’t do with their agency-issued laptops.
Connecting them to personal printers or VPNs, for example, was off-limits.
Jonathan Feibus, the chief information security officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said his office has also had to issue guidance to employees limiting the printing of controlled unclassified information at home.
“It’s much easier for us to say, ‘Yes, you used to print that when you were in the office, but you could destroy it in the office.’ Now printing it at home, because of the sensitivity, you need to protect it when you’re not working on it. So do you have a place to lock it up? Do you have an appropriate shredder to destroy it?” he said.
That guidance, combined with long-term telework, has also led NRC to embrace electronic signatures – a common experience for agencies during the pandemic, and a major goal of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act.
Before mandatory telework went into effect, NRC held clinics in the cafeteria to give employees the equipment and training they’d need to work from home, if they hadn’t done so before. The agency then had employees sign-in remotely to test the network capacity.
While up to 25% of the NRC workforce worked out of the office at any given time before the pandemic, Feibus said a lot of managers have only realized how easy it is to track the productivity of their staff and get immediate feedback from employees through collaboration tools.
“The big question we’re facing is this has been working out so well, what’s going to happen when we start going back to the building? Am I really going to be expected to get my car and drive five days a week? We haven’t gotten to the point where we finalize those discussions, but we realize that that’s going to be coming,” he said.
Letteer said up to 150,000 employees have been on the Marine Corps’ network during the pandemic and that the service never had any issues with virtual private network (VPN) access. Rather than see a dip in productivity, he said many civilian employees are putting in longer hours.
“I have found that we’re actually doing more work longer, particularly those that are in the working environment at home. I’ve had to tell some of my workers, my staff, please shut down [at] five o’clock or whatever, unless you’ve got a hot mission,” Letteer said.
While agencies have stood up videoconference and collaboration tools to hold regular meetings, Bailey said ad hoc gatherings, once easy to organize in the office, have become harder to organize while teleworking.
“Someone pointed out to me that collaboration really involved the conversations by the coffee pot, those conversations by the water cooler, when you walk in here and say ‘Hey, so-and-so, we’re going to have this meeting later.’ I was struck by how much collaboration failed when you take that out of the picture,” Bailey said.
While federal employees, by some estimates, could save up to $4,000 a year if long-term telework became the norm, spending less on transportation, coffee and dry cleaning. But a long-term work-from-home arrangement could also require employees to pay for more robust home internet service.
“It is 2020, we never asked people, ‘Do you have an email, do you have a cell phone, do you have a network at home?’ In an urban area, we expect that you have broadband and it works fine. And for the most part, it works fine for people – until we all get tested at doing school and work at the same time. Many people will realize, ‘Oh, my bandwidth may not be adequate enough for that.’ But whose challenge is that?” Bailey said.