What does the future of work for Federal government employees look like?

During the nine months of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve asked a hundred variations of that question to people whose professional lives near the tip of the technology spear put them in good positions to predict the future and get as many good answers back.

At the dawn of a more hopeful 2021, here’s a look at how the Federal work-scape may play out in the longer term, courtesy of three veteran technologists.

Each of the three – Jonathan Alboum, Federal CTO at ServiceNow; Gary Newgaard, Vice President of Public Sector at Pure Storage; and Egon Rinderer, Global Vice President of Technology and Federal CTO at Tanium – practice in the government IT arena from different perspectives, but with the same goal of helping the Federal enterprise better use technology to service citizens and mission.

During separate interviews over the past several months, MeriTalk spoke with each of them initially about prospects for Federal telework legislation that would put the power of the law – not just discretionary policy – behind the concept of telework during times of pandemic. The legislative effort remains ripe for the incoming 117th Congress, with the sponsoring legislators voicing strong interest in how telework can deliver Federal jobs to their states.

More broadly, the conversations steered toward several of the central questions for the Federal workforce as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic: are we going back to the office, has the work-scape made a lasting evolution, and how is technology driving that change.

Creating Digital Options

Alboum, a former CIO at the Agriculture Department who joined ServiceNow in 2019, declared himself “very much a supporter of the concept” of legislation to create a stronger floor under Federal telework. And he widened the lens to encompass how his company sees technology helping government both during the pandemic and after.

“We’re thinking about it, not just in terms of the safety of Federal employees and their ability to work flexibly, but also in serving citizens, and the public’s ability to interact with the government,” he said. “It’s the other side of the same coin, and those things are really joined in the future. So it’s the promise in a bill like this, whether this passes or a modified version, that to me that’s really intriguing.”

“In the bigger picture,” Alboum said, “an important concept is that telework isn’t just the ability to work from home and check your email and access your files. We want to have digital options for how we serve our citizens,” he said. “I feel like we have to expand the definition of telework so that . . . for every manual process there is a digital alternative.”

“I think digital workflows are the place that I would start,” Alboum said when asked to envision the future where telework is not the point of the exercise – rather it may be just one of a range of vehicles for the government to deliver service.

“Step one [of Federal telework] was simply the idea of making sure people have the software and the hardware to connect and work remotely. And we know that in the early days of the pandemic that was challenging – buying laptops, getting software in place, etc.”

“Now you have to be able to manage it, and maintain it over the duration, so that requires asset management capabilities,” he said. “For instance, if we scaled up our licenses for software, there may come a point where we need to scale them down. You want to do that gracefully because you don’t want to pay for software licenses in perpetuity that you no longer need.”

“That ability to understand what you have and to scale gracefully is critical, especially in light of recent cyber security incidents. We have a great starting point with the Megabyte Act, which is in law and requires agencies to have software license catalogs. That could evolve with automation to drive costs lower and support asset management. I think those are tools that will be needed in this kind of environment because we’re adding telework costs, and also maintaining the physical workspace.”

Alboum also envisioned digital services to manage physical workspace “more effectively, so you can bring people into the office safely, make sure that they have the appropriate physical distance, maybe do shift work.”

“I think we’ll be in this telework mode for some period of time. It’s unlikely to be 100 percent in perpetuity, but it may be that you are in the office some number of days per week, or five days a month, or something similar. Making sure you have the right combination of employees in the office at the right time, that that they have proper places to sit, that are safe, clean, and physically distant – you need digital workflows around that.”

Remote Tech for the Long Term

Newgaard, who joined Pure Storage in 2017, likewise applauded legislative initiatives to firm up Federal telework but said he doesn’t foresee the government telework rhythm changing much in the foreseeable future.

“From a Federal standpoint, I think protecting the workforce is paramount for all of us to carry on with the mission,” he said while expecting remote-friendly culture to continue well into 2021. For example, he said it’s likely that people will continue to wear masks even when it becomes safer to gather in groups, presumably later this year.

When or whether the government returns to office-based work or a hybrid model that sees employees work from home for significant stretches, Newgaard emphasized that the right technology needs to be in place – and remain in place – to conduct widescale teleworking. Along with that, the government needs to invest in the right training for employees and supervisors to thrive in that environment.

And, Newgaard said, don’t be surprised if government latches onto remote work technologies for the longer term.

“What I’ve always found about the government is that they are early adopters of technology” he said. “Most people don’t think they are, but they will help develop and embrace things that enable government to function better.”

In particular, he cited agencies entrusted with “life-saving” missions like the Defense Department and components of the Department of Health and Human Services that demand faster access to crucial data and processes. “If you can shave a millisecond off of getting the result back, they’re in, because they don’t have an infinite amount of time to react,” he said.

At the bottom line, Newgaard agreed that the pandemic has helped to accelerate the pace of IT modernization in the Federal government, and especially in confronting whether to keep some legacy systems on “life support.”

“Let’s face it, if you look at how much money the government spends just on them, it is ridiculous, because modernization can take so much cost out of that. That’s the underlying benefit. I’m not sure how you show those results in hard dollars, but the dollar will go further because they don’t have to spend that kind of money” on legacy systems, he said.

Asked to predict whether Federal telework was going to become a permanent fixture of the landscape – at more than 50 percent of the workforce going forward – he replied in the affirmative.  “Is it here to stay? Yeah. I think it’s a new way of life for all of us, whether it’s a Federal, state and local, education, or industry.”

“Everything we are doing at Pure is focused on how can we enable people to fulfill their missions without having to have humans attached and ‘velcroed’ to the solution,” Newgaard said. “Because that’s expensive, and it’s risky these days. So our focus is how they go about modernization and consolidation to get better outcomes and lower costs.”

He said he believes Federal executives share those goals, saying, “that legacy way of thinking has definitely changed.” The pandemic experience, he said, “has caused us all to kind of rethink how we were going down the path [to modernization] and explore new solutions, as opposed to just saying, ‘well I’ll keep the old system on life support.’ Because that’s where the money goes.”

Shape of Things to Come

Rinderer, who signed on with Tanium in 2014, said that regardless of the outcome of legislative efforts to shore up Federal telework authorities, the effort by lawmakers in that area “is really a harbinger of what’s to come.”

“I think it’s an acknowledgment on the part of our Federal government – just like we’re seeing across the commercial space – that things are finally changing,” he said.

As an example of what is driving the broader mindset change, he explained the ease with which most people use technology in their personal lives to conduct important business like banking and everyday purchases – and how they become used to ubiquitous access to data and compute resources to do that. But by contrast, he said, “in our professional life that’s not true.”

“One of our protection mechanisms that we have deployed over the years [in business and government] to keep our data safe, and protect our intellectual property, or protect our mission, is to limit access to the compute and the data resources that we need to do our job to the confines of a particular location,” Rinderer said.

But the pandemic experience of working for many months outside the confines of location, he said, is forcing a mindset change in how organizations and their employees want to embrace technology, he said.

“No matter what, when the whole COVID crisis ends, that old mindset has forever changed, the genie is out of the bottle,” he said.

“This idea that you have to be confined to this six-by-eight foot space to do your job, the jig is up,” Rinderer declared. “People realize, and employers realize, that it simply wasn’t true in most cases, and there has to be a follow-on effort to change the limitations that we have intentionally put on our compute capability and the tooling around that which does expect location restriction for people doing their jobs.”

That retooling, he said, is vital, “because frankly, most of the tooling that exists today to manage and protect our computer infrastructure falls flat when that computer infrastructure leaves the cozy confines of corporate IT and becomes borderless.”

“It’s not as though when somebody calls off the alarm from COVID everyone’s going back to the office,” he said. “It’s just not a realistic expectation. Anything we do going forward has got to address dramatically increased distributed workforces.”

Part of what will drive that trend, he predicted, are cost savings that government can realize by reducing the size of its “brick and mortar” footprint.

“Those costs are really going to come in play,” he said. “There are things that you can look at and say if we were to shift to a primarily distributed workforce, and we can cut these operational costs and take some of that money and reallocate it to doing things the right way to provide for a remote workforce with the right services and the proper protection, it could be a generational leap forward.”

“We’ll save money, and I’m telling you at the end of the day, that’s what is going to drive it,” he predicted. “There are certainly jobs in government, just like there are in private sector, that cannot be done remotely, but the reality of it is that the vast majority of office jobs can be done regardless of where the person is physically located as long as they have access to the resources they need and have the right tooling available.”

Asked about what Tanium is bringing to the equation, Rinderer replied, “Some of the things that we’ll bring to market in the future are going to be really focused on true risk, that is calculated from tooth to tail taking into account every aspect of the enterprise. Not just a vulnerability assessment and scoring, but risk to operational continuity and business continuity. Risk in terms of security certainly, but that’s just a part of it, bringing that together in a cohesive way, and surfacing that and giving people a true real-time view of organic risk.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.