Remote work to be a 'lasting feature' for state IT offices

The new — and maybe permanent — look for state IT? (Getty Images)

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The coronavirus pandemic could effectively digitize entire government agencies even after public health measures are lifted, according to state IT leaders who spoke Tuesday during webcasts hosted by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. The COVID-19 pandemic, multiple states’ CIOs said, is changing attitudes about remote work.

Missouri CIO Jeff Wann said that as federal and state health measures extend into a third month, agencies in his state have “radically changed” their view on how cost-effective and productive sending government staff to work from home can be. Wann said that he has previously followed research from Gartner on how much it costs an agency or business to employ remote staff, and will make sure that the state accounts for those expenses in its 2021 budget, which is expected to shrink by $700 million because of the coronavirus-related economic downturn.

“We’re going to make sure we refresh that research, so as we go in and finish our 2021 budget cycle, we make sure that’s covered as different agencies want to continue with work-from-home,” Wann said. “As far as work-from-home being a lasting feature, you bet.”

Wann said Missouri agencies previously had an “aversion” to remote work, believing it to be a burden for anybody but IT staff. That’s changed, he said, as entire teams have moved their work processes online and the state fast-tracked an order of 2,000 laptops — which were originally to be distributed throughout 2020 — to be given to employees working from home as soon as possible. The state also reorganized 100 employees to its IT help desk to ease the transition, Wann said.

Nebraska CIO Ed Toner said he had a similar experience in helping the state manage its “phases” of remote work. The first phase, Toner said, required Nebraska’s IT service desk to increase staff to handle an increase in calls for relatively basic requests, like helping employees set up virtual private networks, multi-factor authentication and other cybersecurity measures required by the state. But by choosing to require only a portion of its workforce to be remote at first — the most vulnerable employees went home first, Toner said — the state was able to work out any kinks in the remote-work processes before enabling full agencies to be virtual.

“We had that first group to figure out what we could do better when we’re sending people home,” Toner said.

During an afternoon session, though, other CIOs reported a much smoother transition to mass remote work, chalking it up to a combination of existing telework arrangements and vendor relationships.

“The cat’s out of the bag,” said Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers. “We’ve proven we can be just as productive if not more productive.”

Rodgers, speaking from the home basement office he set up after he “commandeered” what he previously called the “kids’ cave,” said the Ohio Office of Information Technology rapidly scaled up its VPN licenses to as many as 40,000. He also said agencies statewide are making greater use of collaborative productivity applications like Microsoft Office 365 and Teams.

“We’ve gone from a household where nobody’s here during the day besides the dog, to two college students and two full-time working adults,” he said.

And Georgia CIO Calvin Rhodes said the elimination of commute times has helped keep his department productive during the health crisis. Though he noted many members of his workforce already had the option to work remotely on occasion.

“Atlanta’s not the easiest place to get around with all the traffic,” he said. “With some in my group, we had already had some flex schedules where people could work from home, but we did expect them to be in the office some.”

But Rhodes also said Georgia’s heavily outsourced IT governance model means the Georgia Technology Authority had longstanding relationships with far-flung contract workers located hundreds of miles from Atlanta.

“We’ve had people all over the country working with us,” he said. “When people have projects to complete and a detailed project plan, you can easily manage them.”

Going remote has worked so well for some agencies that it could be permanent after the pandemic subsides. Maryland IT secretary Michael Leahey said Tuesday morning that working from home will absolutely be a “lasting feature.” He went even further in suggesting that expanding remote work capabilities could help the state recover from budget shortfalls in coming years by reducing the state’s real-estate footprint.

“I think folks believe I’m kidding, but I’m not,” he said. “I’m giving serious thought to turning my agency practically … into a virtual agency. The state has, like everyone else, significant revenue shortfalls this coming year.”

Benjamin Freed contributed reporting.

This story is part of StateScoop & EdScoop’s Special Report on Remote Workforce.

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Chief Information Officer (CIO), COVID-19, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, NASCIO, Nebraska, Ohio, remote workforce
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