At USAID, Productivity May Look Different Than Before

Keeping employees securely connected is often just the first step to enable them to operate in the new government workplace.

IT modernization efforts at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) tackled capabilities around secure connectivity years ago, allowing employees to connect to the enterprise from international locations. These efforts paid off when mandatory telework orders were enacted in March. Nearly all domestic staff, as well as some overseas personnel, were able to continue working without a hitch in just a few days.

Now, enabling employees to work productively is the highest priority for the agency, said Jay Mahanand, USAID Chief Information Officer. The agency has to continue to carry out its mission providing assistance for countries around the world, but working productively may look different than before, Mahanand said in a written interview in June.

Mahanand spoke with GovLoop explaining what that means, and he shared his advice for leaders looking to keep employees connected.

The following interview was slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How does this new government workplace where more people are able to work from anywhere change how the workforce is connected to the agency enterprise?

For USAID, it isn’t significantly different. As an international organization, and given the global business demands of how USAID delivers foreign assistance on the ground, staff are already heavily reliant on modern, mobile IT solutions.

More than 10 years ago, USAID began a significant IT modernization effort that provided staff with [capabilities such as] real-time access to data, applications that support different endpoints and accessibility to social collaboration tools to gather and share information that supports informed programmatic and business decisions.

These early modernization efforts enabled USAID to have nearly all U.S.-based staff, as well as a good portion of our overseas staff, up and running within the first few days of the mandatory telework order in mid-March.

How can agencies enable employees to be securely connected to their enterprise? What kinds of IT capabilities have you used to address this?

For USAID, it’s about having IT services and products that balance the need for transparency — that business-driven gathering and sharing of information — with the need to keep that information secure.

The agency maintains strict controls for accessing its primary external systems via two-factor authentication, virtual desktop functionality and a suite of information security tools including data loss prevention, log monitoring and a cloud access security broker (CASB).

Taking it a step further, how can employees work productively from wherever they are? Secure connection is the first step, but what kinds of capabilities and strategies have you implemented for employees to work effectively?

Change management has been an important part of moving a significant portion of our staff to working remotely on a full-time basis. The agency already had crisis management, risk management and disaster recovery baked into its business strategy. However, putting those continuity plans into practice meant ensuring that we are using change approaches to help our staff become more comfortable with new ways of working.

Our change management activities also had to take into account that productivity — which is the work we do every day — may look differently than before. We’ve had to develop new norms for our cloud collaboration tools, such as guidelines for hosting an effective online meeting, and evaluate new platforms that are accessible for larger audiences or in countries with underdeveloped infrastructure.

Of the four pillars — connectivity, productivity, engagement and collaboration — which is biggest priority to you now and why?

Although all four pillars are critical, particularly in the current environment, productivity is essential for continuing to deliver our work. The need for assistance has been vital in virtually every country since the coronavirus outbreak. USAID has played a significant role in providing both supplies and funding to ensure we can continue our life-saving mission around the world and support partner countries in their response to COVID-19.

What is one piece of advice you would give other government leaders to keep employees connected?

Find ways to motivate people. It’s important to continue to foster an environment where people want to come to work every day, whether that workplace is an office or on a virtual platform. Cultivate a workplace where staff understand their value, can put their expertise to work and have a desire to continue to grow and learn.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “The Connected Employee: Ensuring the Security and Resilience of Government Operations.” Download the full report here.

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