Mass Telework Causes Operational Strains for Agencies

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Some agencies are telling employees to cut back as networks get overloaded.

Federal agencies across government are beginning to feel the strain of an unprecedented number of employees working remotely as networks are pushed to the limits of their capacities. 

The White House in recent days has instructed agencies to ensure all employees in the Washington, D.C., area and others with large outbreaks of the novel coronavirus to work remotely in an effort to limit its spread. Agencies are now dealing with newfound pressures on their systems as employees access virtual private networks and other software to conduct their daily work outside of their normal office settings. 

The Defense Department, for example, prohibited employees from accessing YouTube on the Pentagon’s network, citing increased demands. It is also “throttling” other streaming services and asking employees to only use music streaming services like Pandora if they are “mission essential.” 

“Given the increased telework demand, we’ve seen a tremendous increase on the network, unprecedented demand just over the last weekend or so,” Essye Miller, the department’s principal deputy chief information officer, said in a virtual town hall for employees on Monday.

She implored employees to “please, please” use the same security practices at home as they do in the office, promising updated guidance shortly. Employees working in a classified system or with any classified information cannot work remotely, but Veronica Hinton, the Pentagon’s principal director of civilian personnel policy, noted some of those workers may be eligible for administrative leave. Miller also asked employees to only use devices they “absolutely need” when teleworking on the Defense network. 

The Transportation Department last week sent out a memorandum to employees explaining its VPN could handle only 20,000 concurrent users, while its virtual desktop infrastructure could accommodate an additional 1,200. Transportation has 55,000 employees, and while some—such as air traffic controllers—cannot work remotely, it created a potential strain on the department. A spokesperson subsequently said the department could support a 100% remote workforce due to interagency coordination and support from vendor partners. 

One department employee told Government Executive that problems still persisted on Monday, as they attempted to join a conference call but all circuits were “totally overloaded.” 

Defense also said it is working with its vendors to support additional telework capacity. The department has “limited inventory” for MobiKeys, laptops and classified devices, and it was “determining prioritization” for giving those out. Miller said the Pentagon was working with vendors to see where it could increase its devices on hand, but the process would “take time.” 

The Veterans Affairs Department also hit a snag in its telework rollout last week, after multiple regional offices in the Veterans Benefits Administration told employees to telework full time. VBA’s central office in Washington later told those offices to undo that directive, citing concerns with network operationality. VA's Office of Information and Technology ran a series of tests to "gauge the remote access capacity," according to an internal email reviewed by Government Executive, which said the testing would continue through this week. A VA spokesperson said regional office directors were “encouraged to make decisions regarding workplace flexibilities based on the circumstances in their communities,” while noting they were asked to “discuss plans with VBA central office leadership to ensure coordination across the country.” 

An Army Corps of Engineers employee said management told employees last week only one-third of the agency’s workforce could telework at one time due to VPN restrictions. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The General Services Administration did not respond to repeated inquiries into whether it would help agencies boost software licensing or otherwise expand telework capacity. The Trump administration on Sunday instructed agencies in the Washington area to utilize “maximum telework flexibilities,” and on Monday told offices throughout the country to do the same.

Ross Gianfortune contributed to this report