Of all the federal agencies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs more reliable remote work than most. NRC protects the public’s health and safety by regulating civilian nuclear energy.
Nuclear materials can endanger everything from the public to the environment, so the agency can’t afford serious disruptions to its work. But that’s just what COVID-19 brought: serious disruption.
In NRC’s case, gone are the days when its headquarters hosted most of its workforce. Instead, COVID-19 forced scores of employees to work from various locations. The resulting arrangement was unlike any the agency had experienced.
Fortunately, the agency shifted gears with few glitches. Its transition to remote work now serves as a case study for other agencies to follow during future crises. More importantly, COVID-19 has taught NRC valuable lessons about agility, leadership and effectiveness.
GovLoop spoke with Chief Information Officer Dave Nelson about insights the agency has gained into remote work. The coronavirus outbreak has made the agency’s workforce, technology and tactics stronger, Nelson said.
COVID-19 Chaos Hits NRC
In March, agency leaders decided COVID-19 directly threatened the workforce. Subsequently, NRC adopted mandatory telework for most of its employees.
But functioning remotely proved easier said than done. NRC quickly encountered two hurdles to teleworking: people and technology, Nelson said. People were scared that the network wasn’t going to hold, based on previous experiences with snow days and power outages. And this time they had to plan to be out for weeks. Nelson said NRC also discovered many of its employees were reluctant to use unfamiliar tools for working remotely.
There’s an element of change management required there. We had all the technology in place, but people weren’t leveraging it. There’s a reluctance to change even if you have that ability. There’s this concern that it’s a hassle to learn new things.
Together, NRC’s human and technological issues could have slowed its COVID-19 response. NRC overcame both obstacles by focusing on its employees first. By teaching workers how to view their tactics and tools differently, most of NRC ultimately embraced teleworking.
If there were any doubts, they’re gone. We’ve proven we can maintain our business and our mission working from home.
Tackling Telework With People
How did the agency quickly leap from its usual routines to teleworking amid a global pandemic? The agency identified and fixed the skills employees were missing to effectively work remotely, Nelson said.
We knew we were all going to work from home. Many of the members of our staff didn’t have direct experience with remote working or the technology. We needed to make sure we were ready, and our people had all the right things.
As a result, NRC began rapidly teaching its staff how to use its remote work capabilities. Using the agency’s exhibition center, Nelson’s team began instructing interested employees about the tools available to them.
One week before NRC started teleworking, participants heard about options including Skype and virtual private networks (VPNs). VPNs let users send or receive data across shared or public networks without directly connecting their computing devices.
People see the technology working and they get confidence. People know they’re being heard. Those kinds of things keep the trust in place.
NRC didn’t stop evolving after launching its telework efforts, however. Nelson said NRC began tracking workers’ opinions with real-time online polling.
It’s reaching out to them and making sure they’re OK. We’re asking about the coping strategies people have.
Upgrading NRC’s Networks
Training wouldn’t help NRC’s employees telework unless they also had the tools to succeed. NRC closely investigated its networks to make sure they were ready for remote work, Nelson said.
We tried to stress our systems and our people and see what problems they had. Our network architecture people had a good theoretical sense of what our networks can support. But we learned a lot.
NRC’s tests revealed that its networks lacked the bandwidth to enable agencywide teleworking. Nelson said they addressed this by requesting an urgent bandwidth increase from its service provider.
I’ve never seen the major carriers move as fast as they were during that time. Within days, they were installing major new services for agencies.
Although beneficial, NRC’s network upgrades left it with more to defend from cyberthreats. Nelson said NRC made sure it fortified its entire attack surface before embracing telework. Agency data often covers nuclear reactors, materials and waste, so the agency treats it cautiously.
Now, NRC’s concern for how teleworking impacts its technology and workers is helping it weather COVID-19. According to Nelson, the agency is doing its part to help the federal government operate smoothly during this difficult time.
Photo credit: NRC Flickr
This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “CIO Perspectives: A New Vision for the Government Workplace.” Download the full report here.