12 takeaways from CIOs on the rapid move to remote work

Government’s information technology leaders have been talking about expanding telework for years, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the move in a matter of days.

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures enforced last March forced thousands of government employees to continue working from home as the deadly pandemic spread. Now, as surges of demand on government IT organizations have begun to fade and officials have started to look ahead, it appears the move to remote work might be here to stay.

In a roundtable conversation with more than a dozen Texas CIOs from the state, local and education sectors, they shared how the move to telework happened in their organizations, what they learned and how those insights will inform their decisions going forward.

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Continuity of operations plans smoothed the transition

Continuity of operations plans smoothed the transition

Just before stay-at-home orders were being issued across the U.S., the chief information officer for one Texas city said the IT department conducted a continuity of operations exercise to prepare.

“We knew we could work remote,” the CIO said. “But we didn’t know we could work from home. We just knew we could work from a different facility.”

The continuity of operations plan enabled the city to focus on the specific challenges that working from home presented — like security, connectivity and device access.

A higher-education CIO who’d just recently started in the job said the institution’s existing resiliency framework and COOP helped ease the impact on operations.

“I was there a total of six weeks, and then all hell breaks loose,” the CIO said.

But that CIO’s university was ready for the move, in part thanks to resiliency planning that had been put in place in anticipation of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods.

“We’re very used to hurricanes [in my city],” one official said. “We had the COOP plan and it paid off.”

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The digital divide affects government employees, too

The digital divide affects government employees, too

When the work from home orders for most government employees went out, one city CIO said some employees, unexpectedly, didn’t have internet access at home.

“We bought up every [wireless access hotspot] we could find,” the official said. “We went to stores, we bought on Amazon, we did everything we could.”

One higher-education CIO said the institution bought Wi-Fi hotspots for parking lots on campus so that employees, students and others could drive, park and maintain social distancing while connecting their devices to a reliable internet connection.

“We told people, ‘Hey, if your internet connection at home is unreliable, come park on campus and sign on,’” the CIO said.

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Vendors have been a huge help

Vendors have been a huge help

One vendor representative, who works with state, local and education customers, said that early in the pandemic, the company was hearing regularly from customers who needed additional licenses and help scaling up their operations.

“It has been the most intense couple months of my professional life,” the expert said. “We were working as much as we could to scale services and maintain security for these users.”

Another CIO said they were talking to their vendors, asking for more license for several different software products, just to keep operations afloat.

“We were talking to our vendor partners and saying ‘I need this access right now, how can you help me?’” the CIO said.

The conversations, initially, weren’t about how the agencies could pay their vendors for the licenses they required, but rather how they could get them.

“Our vendor partners rose to the challenge and helped us out when we needed it,” the CIO said. “We were so thankful for the good relationships we had with them so that we could meet this demand.”

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Older devices being phased out have proven valuable

Older devices being phased out have proven valuable

When massive workforces were moved to telework, not everyone had a physical device they could take home, one CIO said, and supply chain issues made it challenging to obtain enough equipment for everyone.

“We were in the middle of our device refresh cycle with laptops and other devices,” the CIO said. “So we immediately turned and repurposed those older devices and got them ready for use as quickly as we could so that everyone had a device they could take home and use to keep their work going.”

Another CIO said that despite a pre-pandemic strategic goal to refresh and update equipment, the IT shop decided during the pandemic to extend the life of devices.

“In order to remain operational, some special decisions had to be made,” the CIO said. “We needed to extend the useful life of some of our equipment so that our teams could be available and remain nimble.”

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Cybersecurity and data-management have presented substantial challenges

Cybersecurity and data-management have presented substantial challenges

Cybersecurity and the complexity of remote working environments has created a big challenge, one state agency CIO said.

“Before people left the office for the last time, we told them they needed to get their data on OneDrive,” the CIO said. “This way, they didn’t have to worry about where their data was being stored.”

Accessing and using data from a protected cloud service is a start, but now that employees are accessing and using data from beyond government networks, there’s an additional level of scrutiny and protections that IT leaders need to consider, CIOs said.

“It’s just another challenge that we needed to figure out,” one CIO said. “This is where all of our user-education efforts really matter.”

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Clear communication can help prevent shadow IT

Clear communication can help prevent shadow IT

With most employees working from home, CIOs said it’s important to be clear which tools have been approved by the organization and which are not allowed.

“We’ve been really active communicating to people about what they can and cannot use to do their jobs,” one higher education CIO said. “The best way to avoid [employees] using non-approved stuff is to communicate with them about it.”

To prevent shadow IT, officials said they’ve established clear processes for employees to request any resources they might need.

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