As fear from the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to grip the United States and the rest of the world, there has been an increasing push from both private companies and the government alike to utilize telework as means of combatting the spread of the virus.
Push for Telework
Agencies are strongly encouraged to continue reviewing and updating their emergency and COOP plans, as needed. The successful incorporation of telework and “social distancing” in COOP and emergency planning will allow the Federal Government to continue functioning efficiently and effectively, while ensuring the health and safety of employees. Agency COOP plans should have telework fully incorporated so that as many employees as possible are working during a COOP activation.
Agencies should immediately review their current telework policies and ensure that written telework agreements are in place for as many employees as possible. Agencies are strongly encouraged to sign situational (ad hoc) telework agreements with all telework eligible employees currently without a signed telework agreement. Further, agencies should reassess their factors for determining telework eligibility to determine if additional categories of employees may be classified as telework eligible. Finally, OPM encourages agencies to take steps to prepare all telework-ready employees to effectively telework and have access to agency IT systems and networks, as may be necessary, should the conditions from COVID-19 so warrant a Federal office closure.
The White House has also called for expanding telework in the wake of the coronavirus. The Office of Management and Budget said that federal agencies should maximize their telework options during this time, however, the memo did specifically state this recommendation was to protect federal employees who are at greatest risk from the virus.
Legislative Push for Telework
Lawmakers have also been calling for greater use of telework to deal with the virus.
Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to expand telework in general. The lawmakers offering the bills said it should be widely available throughout the federal government and used the coronavirus as evidence of why they think it should always be an option.
“Thanks to years of implementation in the federal government, we know that telework increases productivity, boosts employee morale, and saves taxpayer dollars. Emergencies such as the coronavirus outbreak make it clear that workers also may need the option to work from home for safety purposes,” said Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), one of the co-sponsors of the Senate bill.
Growing Travel Restrictions
Add to all of this the fact that more agencies have begun restricting or stopping travel outright unless it is mission critical and it makes the case further for utilizing telework to deal with the virus.
The Defense Department, for example, announced that it is halting all agency related domestic travel, and the White House has taken the position that only mission critical travel should be conducted by federal agencies. The Office of Management and Budget made the announcement in a memo published over the weekend. Presumably, the new guidance from OMB will lead more agencies to implement travel restrictions for their employees.
IT Security Concerns
There is one significant potential drawback to a sudden surge in the number of federal workers who telework, however.
Concerns have been raised that greater numbers of federal employees working remotely will create huge security risks for the federal government that it is not currently equipped to deal with.
“We’ll see employees not connecting to VPN, we’ll see employees doing email just from their phone versus doing it on their laptop with secure VPN. We’ll see employees downloading applications and tools to be able to make their lives as easy as it once was,” James Yeager, the vice president of public sector and health care at CrowdStrike, a threat intelligence company, recently told Fifth Domain. “And [that] allows some of the security threat vectors to start to creep into these critical business functions.”
He went on to note that even if federal agencies are prepared to handle the influx of new traffic on their networks, some federal employees could be working from anywhere, such as public WiFi in a coffee shop, and there’s no guarantee they would be following proper cybersecurity protocols.
“It really should be advised the two-factor authentication is empowered and enabled, that VPN connectivity is not optional or preferred, it’s required,” Yeager said.
The Washington Post addressed the matter in depth in a recent article and said that the federal government’s computer systems may not be modernized enough to be secure and handle the load that would be placed on them with so many additional federal employees teleworking.
“…it’s far from clear government computer servers are prepared to handle the traffic from thousands of employees trying to access them from outside the office. The virtual private networks through which workers would likely sign on are often decades old and not designed to handle such massive traffic volumes,” wrote the Post.
What Do Federal Employees Think?
Current federal employees are right in the middle of all of this, so what do they think of telework as a solution to the coronavirus? Can they carry out their agency missions working remotely? Could their agency IT departments handle the situation?
The results from our recent survey are included below. Our thanks to those of you who took the time to take the survey and share your feedback. Feel free to continue to share your thoughts and any updates about the teleworking situation at your agencies in the comments at the end of the article.