The Small Business Administration issued 14 years’ worth of loans in 14 days under the CARES Act. Over the past year, it nearly tripled its workforce to process hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic relief spending approved by Congress.
The agency could do none of it, top SBA officials said, without the flexibility of a 100% remote workforce. Now they’re considering the benefits of making long-term telework a permanent feature for the agency workforce.
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SBA’s cloud-based networks scaled quickly to support mandatory telework during the COVID-19 pandemic. Agency executives said employee productivity is up under full-time telework, and could better position the agency to mobilize when it responds to natural disasters.
SBA’s Chief Human Capital Officer Elias Hernandez said Wednesday that the agency is looking at offering permanent telework as a strategy to recruit from a broader pool of talent, and retain the most in-demand employees.
“The organization has really adapted to technology, where it’s going to be probably very difficult for them to transition back to the way it used to be,” Hernandez said in a webinar hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC).
Acting Chief Information Security Officer David Trzcinski said he’s seen cybersecurity professionals leave jobs in the past few years because they were offered a similar job in government with no in-office commitment at all.
“That’s going to be a competitive factor moving forward that we’re learning now. That because we have proven that we can work remotely all the time, that’ll remain to be seen, whether management embraces that moving forward, when they aren’t forced to, due to pandemic restrictions,” Trzcinski said.
At the same time, however, Hernandez said SBA must maintain its presence in underserved communities that don’t have high-speed internet or access to the agency’s online services.
“We have to have a hybrid approach in our delivery model to ensure that yes, in fact, we can reach as many people as we can utilize that technology, but at the same time, recognizing that there are probably thousands of small business owners, if not more, that do not have that capability,” Hernandez said.
SBA Chief Information Officer Keith Bluestein said the agency is looking at how it can maintain its “personal touch” in communities while keeping all the advantages the workforce has had with full telework.
“We’re taking a look right now, across the entire agency. Where do we need to maintain those presences out there? I think you still want to have that, but simultaneously, we want to sit there and push that digital edge out, so that a lot of the things that people go to the web to use, we can sit there and enable things via mobility and other technologies,” Bluestein said.
SBA Chief Technology Officer Sanjay Gupta said IT investments made years before the pandemic allowed the agency to scale up exponentially “almost overnight.” The agency, he added, nearly tripled its staff last year without needing to invest in additional office space.
“We hired folks in the last 12 months who are all across the country. That talent pool for us was available because we are in a remote-only situation,” Gupta said.
SBA moved to full telework, like many other agencies, out of necessity in the early stages of the pandemic. But Gupta said the fact that employees are more productive working from home than in the office makes it hard to imagine a post-pandemic scenario where most employees are back in the office.
“It’s beyond doubt by anybody’s imagination that telework is not necessarily productive,” Gupta said.
Roger Garland, the director of SBA’s Processing and Disbursement Center, said employees have been more productive teleworking, and said keeping staff working remotely gives the agency an opportunity to save money by shrinking its office space. A remote workforce, he added, is better suited to assist in the aftermath of major natural disasters.
“Our footprint is going to be a lot smaller, we’re not going to set up for surge, even though that’s what our business has been, because they can do it from their home. I think we’ll be able to attract better people and keep them longer by offering telework as a permanent solution,” Garland said.
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James Rivera, the associate administrator of the Office of Disaster Assistance and a self-described “old school” manager who prefers in-person meetings, said the benefits of telework are hard to ignore.
“I’m sold on telework. Our staff is so incredibly efficient from a remote perspective,” Rivera said.
Remote work, he added, has allowed employees with children or other needs to flex their schedules but still allowing them to put in a full day’s work.
“It doesn’t matter to me where your eight-, 10-, 12-hour day is, but as long as we’re getting coverage from that perspective,” Rivera said.
While some federal managers have expressed skepticism with telework productivity, Deputy CIO Luis Campudoni said employees are, if anything, putting in longer hours than they normally would working in the office.
“From an eight-hour workday that you would normally experience in the office, now, without asking the workforce, certainly get 10-12 hours of work done on a daily basis. It’s because of that flexibility, people appreciate that,” Campudoni said.
While SBA worked around the clock to roll out new systems and platforms to get pandemic stimulus money out the door, Trzcinski said the speed and efficiency of this work also forced SBA to reevaluate its risk management and authorization in rolling out endpoints.
“The old-school of doing government risk-management authorization is basically you wait a couple of months for a lot of paperwork to be complied and some structured control testing,” Trzcinski said.
“That answer,” he added, under the new normal of the pandemic, “gets you laughed out of the room.”
“It’s forced us to define what are the game-changing and critical things that we can put in place, or measures that can be taken, in one or two sprints to allow management to make a risk-based, informed decision on a go-live for these applications,” Trzcinski said.