At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, there were concerns that mass telework would reduce the productivity of federal employees. But about two months later, some top IT officials at federal agencies haven’t seen productivity worsen.

According to the chief information officers at the departments of Agriculture and Transportation, the productivity hasn’t fallen since employees there began working from home, raising questions about what the future of work looks like for federal employees when they return to the office.

“We are preparing for a different kind of work environment,” Gary Washington, CIO of the Department of Agriculture, said May 19 during a webinar with the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council. “We will see what that is, but we have proven that it is possible to support" the telework environment in the future.

According to Ryan Cote, CIO of the Transportation Department, his agency has “absolutely seen an increase” in productivity, but he hasn’t been able to pinpoint why.

“I can’t really say if it’s one specific thing or another,” Cote said. “Whether it be people who commute from around D.C. who no longer have to spend hours in their car, or whether they’re more relaxed at home. ... There’s no question that every employee at the Department of Transportation is more productive than ever.”

Both Cabinet-level CIOs expressed surprise at the amount of demand they received from employees for access to collaboration tools — a reality described by other agency CIOs as well — such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, the videoconferencing platform.

Washington can tell that the productivity of Agriculture Department employees hasn’t dropped; he collects data on network and collaboration-tool use. He said the department’s use of data analytics has become more important during the pandemic to inform decisions on resource deployment, among other scenarios. Meanwhile, the department’s need to ensure continuity of operations during the pandemic has increased the focus on IT infrastructure.

“There’s more of a focus on the infrastructure and a dependence on the infrastructure because, as you know, during your day-to-day activities in a normal environment, that may be an afterthought sometimes," Washington said. "But now there’s really a nod toward making sure we set up an environment where everybody can work and there’s not performance degradation and we’re all secure and safe.”

Agencies were told in March by the Office of Personnel Management as well as the Office of Management and Budget to maximize telework flexibilities. In mid-April, OPM and OMB released a plan for reintroducing federal employees to the office. That plan took into account public health assessments in office localities and allowed for a slow return.

The move to telework wasn’t an extraordinary lift for the Department of Transportation, according to Cote, who said the department’s network was already set up to handle 40 percent of the workforce teleworking. So when the spread of coronavirus sent employees home, the department only had to scale up its current environment by signing new licenses and increasing capacity.

One challenge the agency faced was that many employees hadn’t previously worked from home, so calls to the help desk spiked as employees got used to the remote environment.

Federal IT officials constantly discuss the need for cultural change to improve IT practices. The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be no different.

“We have to prepare our workforce to think differently, not just about how we deliver IT services, but how we maintain them as well and how we address our customers," Washington said.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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