The Telework Model for Government: COVID Lessons for Building an Effective Workforce


Federal agencies continue to confront the challenge of enabling and expanding telework as the need to protect against the spread of COVID-19 affects employees in a variety of roles nationwide. Last year, through technology and ingenuity, agencies rose to the challenge, deploying telework for many functions that previously did not seem suited to it. 2020 created a laboratory for experimenting with technical solutions, personnel management techniques, and security practices—and 2021 is pushing those same limits.

The lesson learned? For many government organizations, telework can be a mission enabler that serves customers – the public – well when it’s implemented strategically and thoughtfully. In other cases, a hybrid model that includes remote and in-person working environments can best serve the mission. Most recently, Federal policy discussions have focused on weighing the most equitable and effective approach that agencies can and should take, based on lessons from 2020 when a huge shift occurred in moving most of the Federal workforce to remote operations.

With the pandemic’s impact on the nation changing almost daily, Federal agencies continue to consider what their workplaces will look like in the future. Agencies are still evaluating their employee re-entry plans using the Biden Administration’s guidance outlined in OMB M-21-21, and realizing that a “one- size” approach does not fit all for their organizations. Instead, new ways of working are needed to best deliver on their missions, operate efficiently, and meet their talent needs, including implementing non-traditional options such as teleworking, hybrid models, and co-working.

During this period of agencies’ self-reflection and evaluation, their leaders have an opportunity to learn from the experiences that private sector organizations have had in successfully managing telework and hybrid employee models. Many industry organizations that help government deliver on their missions, such as Cognosante, have been operating with both models for more than a year and have “lessons learned” to share about a successful telework strategy.

To aid our government partners in their evaluation of their own situations, in this article we highlight technological and security considerations, as well as the workforce, organizational, and cultural aspects that must be addressed for a successful teleworking strategy.

Headquartered in metropolitan Washington, DC, Cognosante’s employees are located throughout the U.S. Although most employees have worked remotely at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we typically function in a hybrid model, with both onsite and remote employees.

As a result of working this way, we’ve learned that, with a sound technology strategy, a robust employee engagement plan, and a determination that location-based working doesn’t impact the mission, many organizations can maximize the benefit of multiple workforce arrangements. And all while mitigating risk and retaining flexibility to adapt to changing needs.

Here are a few of our lessons learned from the experience:

A Sound Technology Strategy Mitigates Risk, Removes Barriers, and Facilitates Collaboration

  • Successful telework or hybrid models begin with a solid cloud foundation. Many agencies have already embraced cloud technology for its ability to provide scalable infrastructure for a variety of IT needs. During COVID-19, cloud technology really enabled our own paradigm shift to remote work. With the majority of Cognosante employees working remotely at the start of the pandemic, we had to ensure that our workforce could access the applications and data necessary to perform work from home with no disruption to our customer deliverables. Our forward-thinking cloud strategy enabled us to be fully prepared for remote and hybrid work when the pandemic hit in early 2020.
  • Cloud infrastructure is as or more secure than on-premises data centers. By utilizing services like Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services that are already certified at a FedRAMP Moderate or High level, agencies can be assured that their most stringent requirements for non-classified work are met. Cloud IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, and hybrid cloud are all options that can be leveraged to meet organizational needs.
  • With the expanded surface area for attacks, cybersecurity tools can be used to address any new risks. Recent cybersecurity attacks have heightened the focus on the security of telework and remote collaboration tools. Technology can be used to create a telework environment that mirrors the physical controls that exist in an office, even for roles requiring access to sensitive information. For example, Cognosante employs Zscaler to maintain and enforce a “clean site” list to ensure that an individual can’t access prohibited internet sites from a company laptop. Cognosante makes efficient use of Absolute Resilience to enforce geo-fencing and to turn off access to a machine in the event of loss or theft, making a laptop useless to anyone outside the organization. And malware defenses can prevent information loss at an individual level.
  • For customer service functions, technologies like Cognosante’s eSante Aware can assist with supervision of individuals working remotely with access to sensitive information to notice irregular behaviors (such as an individual attempting to capture personal information using a cell phone) that would not otherwise be visible in a remote work environment. Tools like TeamViewer can allow supervisory or support staff to access an employee’s computer remotely to provide technical assistance when it is needed.
  • Applications can confirm connectivity before telework begins. Telework is only possible if an employee can reliably connect to an organization’s network. Apps or websites to collect information about an employee’s bandwidth can be used to determine whether the employee’s home network and device meet the minimum connectivity requirements for telework. This is particularly useful for organizations that allow employees to work on personal devices.
  • End-user controls remain critical. Even with a robust technology strategy, employers must recognize that end-users remain the first line of defense against information loss or privacy breaches. Technical solutions must be paired with end-user controls including multifactor authentication, password protections, security, compliance, and privacy training, and USB or print controls. In addition, those controls must be combined with a personnel strategy that sets and enforces rules of behavior.
  • Collaboration tools can facilitate meetings, employee collaboration and even foster organizational identity. Tools like Microsoft 365 and Sharepoint provide secure and scalable document sharing and storage, with rules to control access appropriately. Microsoft Teams, or even Zoom for Government can maintain employee engagement and facilitate collaboration with individuals in different geographic areas. Transitioning from audio to video communication can promote employee engagement, communication, and inclusion, by ensuring that remote employees can contribute equally to discussions. Federal CIO Clare Martorana cited the importance of collaboration tools in her address to the ACT-IAC’s Emerging Technology and Innovation virtual conference.

Creating a Culture of Engaged and Productive Teleworking Employees is Crucial to Success

While the tools and technologies exist to support telework, management challenges remain. Managers must ensure that on and offsite employees have equal access to information, resources, and opportunities, and that they are treated equitably in performance evaluations. Managers also need to meet employees’ need for personal connections by prioritizing employee engagement and morale.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we transitioned our hybrid workforce to a fully remote environment in fewer than five days. Our staff has remained largely remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, when appropriate, will return to a hybrid model informed by customer and program needs.

By focusing on inclusion, communication, and fairness, organizations can adapt a management strategy that fosters employee engagement and morale without sacrificing accountability or productivity. With thoughtful planning, agencies and government contracting companies can navigate this transition in a way that is seamless to constituents and customers – and maintain employee morale as we continue to move towards national and global containment.

Successful management of employees who work in a remote environment requires four components:

  • Proactive Management is Key: Managers must be aware not only of employee outputs and results, but also of employee connectedness and satisfaction. Identifying and implementing technologies that increase collaboration, such as video conferencing, helps managers remain engaged with their teams, particularly when they are accustomed to frequent face-to-face interaction. Incorporating change management techniques may be required to give support to a new way of working.
  • Train for the Remote Environment: Remote work does require a different set of soft skills, for both employees and managers. Providing web-based training on organizational expectations and successful telework strategies, along with clear guidance on telework and security policies, help employees and managers adapt to changing organizational norms, and minimize confusion about expectations.
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: Frequent and transparent communication about policies, procedures and expectations maintains employee satisfaction and boosts morale. Regular employee newsletters and leadership briefings can foster greater mission-focus and provide a sense of context, particularly for employees in large organizations with a diverse set of functions. Virtual brown bag lunches are an excellent opportunity to promote a sense of employee connection and situational awareness. To ensure widespread awareness and understanding of organizational priorities, use a range of communication channels, including email, teleconferencing, video messaging, internal websites, and FAQ documents, and more.
  • Engage Your Employees: Employee engagement becomes more critical when employees are remote, not less. Every employee has varying needs for connection and belonging, so presenting options for how teams should continue to engage with each other, with their leaders, and with the organizational culture is critical.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a paradigm shift in how people work. By leveraging the lessons learned from the past year and a half, as well as the experiences of organizations that previously implemented remote and hybrid work models, Federal agencies can create a future workforce that is flexible, secure, and well positioned to take on the challenges of today, tomorrow, and into the future.

About Douglas Neff
Douglas Neff is the chief information officer of Cognosante.