Telework will outlive COVID

The new landscape of federal government employment during the COVID-19 outbreak looks strikingly similar to your house. That’s because it most likely is, quipped U.S. Army personnel advisors recently. In an effort to protect the health of the military workforce while maintaining operational momentum, many organizations are sending non-mission-essential workers home, and network capabilities have expanded to meet the need.

WASHINGTON – To keep mission support functions on track during the fight against COVID-19, the Defense Department greatly expanded its telework capability with a variety of tools and creative workarounds. Some of those enhancements, according to the DOD’s chief information officer, will live past the emergency.

“We are creating more robust teleworking capabilities beyond those we already had,” Dana Deasy told reporters recently at a Pentagon press conference. “(There has been) a multiplier effect on quantity, types of services, collaboration tools, etc. There will be some permanency to what we have here. ... There is going to be an enhanced teleworking capability that will be sustained beyond the end of COVID-19.”

Deasy is referring to enhanced network capability and a larger base of teleworking equipment. There also has been a change in mentality.

“We’ve just developed some new tactics and techniques that allow us to ramp up quite quickly,” he said, adding that the department had “significant help” from industry partners to support the large numbers of Defense Department employees who are working offsite due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Air Force Lt. Gen. B.J. Shwedo, the Joint Staff’s director for command, control, communications, and computers/cyber and chief information officer, said as many as 4 million DOD military and civilian workers are now teleworking.

The Army, he said, has about 800,000 telework-enabled members on Defense Department networks, and the demand is increasing daily. The Navy had 100,000 remote workers on its networks before the coronavirus pandemic, and that has more than doubled to 250,000. “Planned improvements in the next two-to-three weeks will bring the total to 500,000 remote users,” Shwedo projected.

The Navy’s use of Outlook Web Access, he said, was at about 10,000 users before the pandemic, and usage may climb to some 300,000 users by the end of the month. The Marine Corps expects its OWA users to increase from about 70,000 to more than 105,000.

The Air Force has increased virtual private network capability from 10,000 to more 100,000 as of Friday, with an expectation to go to 200,000 in coming weeks. “They’re now using a tool that is going to bring this capability to over 400,000 users,” Shwedo said.

The many telework-enabling tools available to department employees are explained at public.cyber.mil, Deasy noted. One of those is the “commercial virtual remote” environment that provides collaboration capabilities including video, voice and text.

“CVR was created to support the department in the large-scale teleworking environment necessitated by the COVID-19 national emergency,” he said. “The tool is just one of several available to the workforce and provides remote workers with enhanced collaboration capabilities.”

The rollout for CVR began March 27, and it already has more than 900,000 activated user accounts, according to Deasy.

“At one point last week, we added over 250,000 accounts in a single day,” he said. “This is the largest rollout ever implemented in this short amount of time.”

The recently stood-up COVID-19 Telework Readiness Task Force has spearheaded much of the effort to get employees online from home so they could continue doing their jobs, Deasy said. The TRTF focuses on areas such as equipment needs, network capacity, operational readiness, information technology personnel, contracting readiness, supply chain and finance requirements, and cybersecurity.

“We meet daily for about two hours to review and address various technical issues and requests as they arise,” he said.

Remote access efforts during the coronavirus pandemic have not been restricted to getting employees online for telework, Deasy further noted. DOD is helping on the front lines of the fight as well.

In New Orleans, he said, the department provided two field hospitals with a one-gigabyte internet connection, (internet protocol) phones, connectivity between locations and switches to connect it all together.

“A request such as this generally requires months of planning, procuring equipment, and of course, hiring the teams to install everything,” he said. “Due to our strong partnership with industry, the job was completed in just one day.”

One downside of increased telework and the coronavirus pandemic has been a rise in “spear phishing” – attempts by malicious actors to compromise protected systems and data.

“We’re gaining insights in that arena as well,” Shwedo emphasized. “We’re getting better and better at uncovering their (tactics, techniques and procedures) and finding out where these threat vectors are coming from.”