The COVID-19 pandemic forced Federal agencies to work remotely almost immediately, but Federal CIOs and CTOs agree that this shift to teleworking has enabled agencies to undergo a transformational cultural shift within the agency and provides more opportunities for innovation.

During the GDIT Emerge 2021 virtual conference on May 26, Federal CIOs and CTOs noted that while their agencies may have already had the tools in place to telework, such as operating from the cloud as opposed to on-prem systems, the pandemic was the catalyst to push agencies into a teleworking workforce.

“Remote work and collaboration technologies – there’s been such an advance in those over this last year,” said Mason McDaniel, chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

McDaniel said his agency had already distributed laptops and smartphones to its employees and had already deployed collaboration tools pre-pandemic, “even though culturally we had not gotten much adoption at all.” He said “very few people used video chats, video conferencing, audio conferencing,” before the pandemic, but once his agency was forced into a “maximum telework posture,” it was able to “immediately flip that switch” and employees could seamlessly transition.

“The need for it, the requirement where they didn’t have a choice, they had to work remotely – has really pushed the cultural change more than anything else I’ve seen in recent memory,” he added.

Scott Flanders, deputy CIO at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, agreed with McDaniel that collaboration tools were crucial to his agency’s transition to working remotely.

“We similarly had moved to cloud-based collaboration tools, we had given all of our staff laptops, and our staff was able to hit the ground running and carry out their mission,” Flanders said. “I think at one point we had as much as 98 percent of the agency teleworking, and working from home. Having that [collaboration tools] allowed us to be in a much better position to easily embrace the challenge from working remotely.”

Now after transitioning to telework, McDaniel said his agency isn’t planning on going back to the office anytime soon.

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“We were very much, culturally, a ‘butts in seats,’ or at least visually see somebody manage them face-to-face kind of an organization. And our leadership now is asking why we need to bring people back to the office at all,” McDaniel said. “They’re saying, ‘we can work just as effectively from anywhere, why are we maintaining these large facilities’ and looking at instituting permanent changes.”

Sanjay Gupta, chief technology officer at the Small Business Administration (SBA) agreed with both McDaniel and Flanders and said that his agency “had to improvise, we had to innovate, [because] there was no choice,” when the pandemic hit.

“In terms of acceleration, I think that’s where I come back to ‘necessity is the mother of innovation,’” Gupta said. “I think as we moved to telework, some of the things that we’d already put in place like secure network access solutions, which were replacing VPN solutions, we accelerated the use of that because we knew that was a much more scalable solution.”

Although a number of telework collaboration tools were already in place before the pandemic hit, there is still room for new innovative technologies and tools as agencies start to return to some kind of hybrid model, according to McDaniel.

For example, he said conference room technologies are “an area where we need some innovation because we have all gotten used to seeing faces on the screen relatively high resolution, talking to people face to face [with] good audio quality from each machine.” He hopes to see improvements to this technology going forward, in which everyone has their own individual video and audio for increased quality.

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.