Oct 02 2020

State and Local Agencies Augment Their Telework with Video

Videoconferencing brings remote agency teams together.

Like many local governments, King County, Wash., ordered its employees to work from home when the COVID-19 crisis struck earlier this year. And the county’s $13 million technology investment in collaboration tools, particularly for videoconferencing, paid off during the work-from-home order, when more than 5,400 people started working away from the office.

Tanya Hannah, CIO and director of King County IT, says that the county has long believed in the power of conferencing, supporting smart rooms through Microsoft Surface hubs and Teams as well as Zoom.

“Before COVID-19, some managers felt very strongly that employees needed to be in the office,” Hannah says. “This experience has changed their perception. Many of the department directors have been pleasantly surprised at the increased productivity from employees, lower absenteeism and better morale.”

“A technology like Zoom has been so popular because we need breakout rooms, as we now conduct more meetings. It’s been fascinating to witness how people have adapted to the technology,” she adds.

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, believes that videoconferencing has removed some obstacles to teleworking for government agencies. Videoconferencing fosters inclusion among managers, inspires productivity for employees and bridges otherwise insurmountable distances among team members.

“When people start talking about telework, one of the first questions managers ask is, ‘What will employees do if we can’t see them?’” Lister says. “But government agencies have learned from this. Managers can see that employees are working, and the next step is to formalize the remote work policies and digital services that have worked so well.”

Enhancing Productivity in the Remote Office

Hannah believes teleworking is helpful from an equity perspective. Many county offices are located in Seattle, where real estate isn’t cheap. Teleworking provides employees with better options to find cost-effective housing that is farther from the city, which helps to lower transportation and child care costs as well.

Video brings everyone together at the tap of a button, no matter where they may be. Managers and employees embraced the technology, and videoconferencing has proved successful in creating a virtual office, she says.

Tanya Hannah, CIO and director of King County IT

Tanya Hannah, CIO and director of King County IT, says that the county has long believed in the power of conferencing. Photography by Rick Dahms

In addition to increased productivity, King County IT is moving many more services toward digital delivery, which is more convenient for residents as well as efficient for the government. Hannah sees digital services, like telehealth and video courtrooms, as a primary way King County can better connect with individuals and communities.

“We can’t go back to pre-COVID,” she says. “Telework will be permanent. Services delivered now will change dramatically. I think you’re going to see innovation in government grow, reach and pass the private sector.”

READ MORE: How did agencies move quickly to a secure telework environment? 

Utah Expands Use of Videoconferencing 

Other local agencies also see positive changes as a result of deploying videoconferencing.

Utah launched a teleworking initiative in 2019 and already had approximately 30 percent of employees working from home. During the pandemic, that number jumped to 90 percent, and scaling up required a culture shift.

“We unintentionally bridged a generation gap,” says Corona Ngatuvai, Utah’s chief technical architect. “The younger generation is already accustomed to using technology tools for collaboration and communication. Training older generations to use these tools has fostered a level of unprecedented communication that bridges both distance and time.”

Prior to the pandemic, the state used videoconferences for presentations and other types of meetings that were typically unidirectional in nature. Various agencies used a variety of software programs, Ngatuvai says.

Tanya Hannah, CIO,  King County, Wash.
A technology like Zoom has been so ­popular because we need breakout rooms, as we now conduct more meetings.”

Tanya Hannah CIO, King County, Wash.

The state has increased the use of videoconferencing in many instances where employees typically teleconferenced, prompting its switch to G Suite Enterprise for collaboration and Google Meet for videoconferencing. However, some use cases required other tools to supplement Google Meet, such as Meeting Owl from Owl Labs, which can be deployed by teams to create collaboration rooms where more than one person in an office can communicate with remote users, Ngatuvai says.

By relying on videoconferencing, for example, Utah Department of Technology Services workers can rewatch a presentation from a speaker rather than keep their own notes, record a meeting for playback, mute audio interference and review a log of attendees.

“Adoption of these technologies has increased proportionally to the growth in teleworking. The features built into these tools are being used more heavily than they were previously,” Ngatuvai adds.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how state governments have addressed legacy IT in a time of crisis.

Texas Uses Tech to Keeps Operations Running Smoothly

Texas began ramping up its teleworking readiness back in 2017, after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state. Many agencies issued laptops to their workers, and a virtual private network was created for employees to connect to the state’s systems from home.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, roughly half of the employees at the Texas Department of Transportation began working from home. Workers use Cisco AnyConnect to ensure secure access to TxDOT systems. For collaboration, employees log on to Cisco Webex or Microsoft Teams. To ensure connectivity, TxDOT had to expand network bandwidth as well as replace end-of-life equipment.

“For as big a change and interruption the COVID-19 pandemic has been for all families across the world, we are very proud that our TxDOT team has not skipped a beat. Our operations have continued, and we’ve helped to make sure our state’s roadways are moving commerce and supplies where they are needed most during this unpredictable time,” says Anh Selissen, TxDOT CIO.

“Videoconferencing has become a critical tool for our agency during COVID-19. IT has provided regular training to the agency to facilitate ease of use,” Selissen adds.

Stuart Bradford/Theispot