CIO expands capability for remote work during COVID-19 epidemic
Joe Harris left the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of February this year and reported to work at Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC, (CNS) in Oak Ridge, Tenn. just 10 days later. The new chief information officer—with responsibility for leading the Information Solutions and Services organization—had no idea a worldwide pandemic would thrust incredible requirements on the CNS employees and organization shortly after his arrival.
I think we’re quickly maturing our abilities at teleworking and becoming telework ready.
Think back to the uncertainty at the outset of the COVID-19 viral outbreak and the nationwide stay-at-home orders issued in March. People were terrified—worried about the health of their families and loved ones, access to necessary supplies like food and medicine, and how their lives may change as a result of the pandemic. Given the vital national security mission of the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) sites, however, Harris knew he would have to find a way for the workforce to remain productive despite the challenges.
On the heels of his arrival in Oak Ridge, Harris and his team acted quickly to mobilize the available technological infrastructure and train the personnel for remote work. He realized the COVID-19 virus was going to test the Pantex Plant and Y‑12 National Security Complex – which CNS runs – in a way the sites had never fully experienced. The closest analog would be enacting continuity of operations plans meant for emergencies, made additionally challenging because only a bare minimum of people could perform work at the sites.
“When I first came on board, we talked about an existing effort for activating the ‘Always On’ VPN system for Y‑12,” Harris said. “That system creates an encrypted tunnel an employee can log into to safely surf the internet. It makes the virtual desktop similar to what people were experiencing in their offices.”
Harris also coordinated with the CNS Business Management and Transformation leadership, the NNSA Production Office, and NNSA Headquarters chief information officers to discuss increasing the volume of remote users that could log in at the same time. With approval to move forward, Harris quickly found that existing Information Solutions and Services (IS&S) processes were unlikely to be responsive enough to meet his team’s needs. With a forecast that it may take months to expand the bandwidth to handle the needs of the plants, combined with daily coronavirus updates showing the risks to staff and citizens in East Tennessee and the Texas Panhandle, Harris knew that he and his team had to act fast.
In a matter of days to a couple of weeks, Harris and his IS&S team accomplished what they had been advised would take months. By mid-March, the VPN system was operating near maximum capacity with 267 users across the two sites logged on at once. By the end of March, that number had increased by 350%. As of April, the VPN system reached a peak user level of 3,273 users from Pantex and Y‑12 logged on at once. The number of users has continued to grow as the workforce has remained primarily offsite through summer.
If IS&S didn’t have enough to do, they also outfitted hundreds of employees who needed equipment, from tokens and headsets to laptops. Knowing that he couldn’t send thousands of people home with equipment but without support, IS&S created customer advocates for organizations across the sites. Offering what Harris terms “concierge‑type service,” remote users have been provided walked through set‑ups of both government‑furnished and a multitude of various personal computers by CNS Service Desk employees, some of whom are also working from their homes. To date, the team has successfully responded to more than 3,000 tickets.
IS&S continues to provide equipment, guides and documentation, support, and bandwidth for all of those who are working away from the sites. A former U.S. Air Force member, Harris likens IS&S to the Marines during this experience — the “first ones in and the last ones out.” His team works with a “War Room,” or “Tiger Team” approach, and the results are outstanding.
“I think we’re quickly maturing our abilities at teleworking and becoming telework ready,” said Harris, who believes that is a good thing, not only in cases of maintaining continuity of operations, but also in attracting future employees to the sites who want the flexibility of teleworking some or all of the time.