In the past month, the difference between traditional telework and true continuity of operations (COOP) has become clear.
Equipping employees to work remotely a few days per week, or during a winter storm or hurricane, is one thing. The current pandemic is something else altogether. As more employees are required to work from home, agencies are realizing a quick, telework fix is not enough. Agencies need defined strategies to work done in a virtual environment.
How can agencies leverage technology to reinvent their COOP strategy? To explore this issue, GovLoop spoke with Sonny Hashmi, Managing Director for Global Government at Box. Box powers mission-critical outcomes across government agencies with cloud content management.
Before joining Box in 2015, Hashmi was the Chief Information Officer at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), one of the leading proponents of telework in the federal government, and previously had the opportunity to serve as deputy CIO for the District of Columbia.
Hashmi said current telework policies and strategies assume that important decisions are made in conference rooms, paperwork is signed in person or discussions happen in hallways. Today, that model has been flipped on its head, with remote work as the default. “Designing business processes to be inherently virtual or digital-first is your biggest challenge,” he said.
Hashmi recommends that agencies look at the problem from three different perspectives: personal productivity, business enablement and human capital/culture.
At the moment, most agencies are focused on a simple question: In this remote work environment, how do employees become functionally productive enough to do their jobs?
Typically, the conversation is all about technology solutions for holding meetings online, managing and accessing files, digitally signing documents and so on. As Hashmi said, the marketplace offers plenty of options, including Box, that they can bring in to help employees work through this current crisis.
However, in the long term, agencies need to ask a different question, he said: “How do we create a culture and a technology strategy so that the experience of an end user is exactly the same whether they’re working from their home, a coffee shop or in the office?” This “model flip” would enable agencies to be far more resilient in the face of large-scale disruptive events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
That might mean retiring on-premises shared network drives, as well as any solutions whose full capabilities are accessible only within the firewall. Implementing technologies that reduce the reliance on agency networks and VPNs, while maintaining federal compliance with security and privacy expectations, is key. Agencies also need to get rid of this notion of government-issued equipment being the safest option and instead allow people to work securely with any device.
“That’s the target, and that takes a little bit of doing to get to,” Hashmi said.
At many agencies, core business processes have been around longer than any of the employees. Both the processes and the underlying business systems typically date back to a time when working from the office was the status quo.
That is how you end up with a mainframe-based financial application that requires finance employees to have specialized software installed on the government-issued desktop. If that employee is stuck at home for whatever reason, work grinds to a halt.
Obviously, agencies find workarounds, such as a remote PC or virtual desktop infrastructure solutions, Hashmi said. Eventually, however, they need to modernize their business systems to a cloud-based application that enables employee productivity from any device
As long as business processes depend on legacy systems, they will be vulnerable to disruption. While that might have been inevitable and acceptable when the processes were first developed, that’s no longer the case.
Human capital and culture
Some work, of course, cannot be performed remotely. Employees who serve the public, including customer service centers, field inspectors, social welfare teams and emergency responders might be scaled back or shut down in the event of something like a pandemic. What then?
While technology cannot completely replace human processes, Hashmi said, it can “reduce the friction” in those processes so that fewer people can do more work. This is where mobile technologies, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other digital tools can serve as force-multipliers. They enable an individual employee to handle more work, thereby reducing the impact from some of that workforce not being able to perform their duties, and allowing agencies greater resiliency.
Think about the evolution of customer service in the digital economy. In many cases, if you call a company’s helpline, you’ll first encounter a chatbot, which will gather basic information and even attempt to resolve your problem before passing you to a human. Such a system reduces the workload of human agents, freeing up their time to focus on mission-critical work.
Similarly, a field inspector can access and collect important information from their mobile device, which can be categorized automatically. When processes like these are sped up through technology, workers and field inspectors can focus more on additional cases and less on manual activities, such as transcribing hand-written notes or data entries.
Accelerating manual processes through digitization is not enough. Agencies need to focus on the cultural aspect of the human equation. Are agency leaders setting the right tone for employee flexibility? Has a model been set in place that indicates employee telework behavior?
There is no simple switch for culture change. But, with the expectation that workplace flexibility leads to mission resiliency, agency leadership can drive telework behaviors throughout management — ultimately leading to critical outcomes.
These kinds of capabilities make it possible for agencies to maintain those human-driven processes in the event that they must scale back the number of people in the field, Hashmi said.
In the current crisis, agencies are focused on using short-term solutions for immediate pain-points. However, in the future, agency leaders will have the opportunity to better position themselves for the next crisis, Hashmi said. They must consider how to make their operations “highly resilient, highly mobile and highly virtual.”
That long-term mindset requires a different way of thinking. Hashmi recalls the early days of cloud computing in the federal government, when the ROI for cloud technologies was calculated primarily in terms of servers retired, data centers closed and operating costs.
But, critical considerations were missing. Cloud solutions also deliver improved business outcomes with accelerated workflows and services.
For example, to resolve .gov domain registration issues, teams would communicate over the phone, which oftentimes delayed the process. With a new collaboration platform that democratized engagement across teams, the need for phone calls was eliminated and.gov domain issues were resolved in a matter of minutes.
That’s a small example of the real nature of digital transformation, Hashmi said. It’s not about what the technology can do, but about what the technology enables people to accomplish.
Conversely, legacy infrastructure strategies require a different mindset. For example, legacy systems require constant IT staff support to serve as the gatekeepers of IT capabilities. However, studies have shown a gatekeeping mentality oftentimes leads to less innovation and collaboration, Hashmi said.
Today’s digital solutions are designed to lower the gate or barrier to entry, equipping employees with the capabilities they need to transform their own work.
“It’s not just about the technologies,” Hashmi said. “It’s also about the cultural change that comes with building networks of people who can collaborate across the organization – without the friction of IT getting involved.”
That’s when digital transformation really begins to pay off, he said.
Learn more about Box: https://www.box.com/remote
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