On March 12, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia. The threat of COVID-19 cast a shadow over the Commonwealth, and Chesterfield County officials knew major operational adaptations would be needed to continue serving a population of nearly 350,000 residents.
At that time, approximately 530 employees of Chesterfield County Government — 11.7 percent of the workforce — regularly worked remotely. But Chesterfield County’s workforce was about to undergo a change.
A mass shift to telework would be necessary to help protect workers’ health; leading that shift would be two departments whose relationship has proven to be symbiotic throughout the pandemic: Human Resources (HR) and Information Systems Technology (IST).
On the surface, both departments play vital, yet disparate, roles. In Chesterfield County, HR is responsible for developing, maintaining and improving the foundation upon which the workforce operates.
Under normal circumstances, HR’s work ranges from hiring and managing employee compensation and benefits to resolving disputes and ensuring compliance with state and federal employment regulations.
Meanwhile, Chesterfield’s IST Department governs the county’s information technology and security, manages the technological infrastructure and operates at the forefront of technological solutions delivery.
As the threats of COVID-19 became apparent — and even before Gov. Northam declared a state of emergency — these responsibilities of empowering employees and advancing the county’s technological capabilities began to coalesce, and HR and IST had to align their priorities to ensure success.
For example, one of the first steps taken by HR was amending the county’s Telework Program Packet, which establishes guidelines for a consistent application of telework practices across county departments.
In doing so, the packet provided departments needed governance to help ensure the security of county information and systems.
The amendments recommitted Chesterfield County to minimizing the risk of exposure and transmission of infectious diseases through the workplace and outlined how employees may be required to perform their job functions in cases of mass-teleworking.
These enhancements to the telework guidelines may shift how the county issues office closure messaging for winter storms in the future.
For example, instead of being closed for adverse weather, the county now has the ability to be “opened virtually” with employees having the ability to provide customer service remotely.
As HR developed these new guidelines, IST identified a key component of the mass-telework shift: mobile workstations.
Many employees did not have a county-issued mobile computer, and some who did required reconfiguration of their mobile workstations for at-home use or for access to the county’s virtual private network (VPN).
A solution was quickly developed.
Mobile computers originally scheduled to be distributed as part of the county’s Desktop Refresh Program were instead deployed to employees on loan.
The year-old Desktop Refresh Program was initially established by IST, the Department of Budget and Management and county leaders to annually replace 20 percent of the county’s computers with newer, mobile computers that would improve worker flexibility.
In addition to the 200 computers that were deployed as loaners, IST loaded needed software and configured an additional 800 computers.
This software installation included loading “softphone” technology on some mobile workstations, enabling employees to remotely manage the county’s Emergency Operations Call Center and assist residents needing clarification on county services during the pandemic.
In addition, this technology allowed HR to continue serving Chesterfield County employees and operate its front desk telephone line in real time. Due to IST’s implementation of DocuSign software, new and emergency hires were able to complete necessary paperwork while staying at home.
Mindful of employee health, IST scheduled employees for staggered appointments to pick up their needed equipment, setting up four stations in the IST parking lot that abided by social distancing guidelines.
The department then deployed software installations and upgrades remotely to allow employees to connect to the county’s network from home.
During this time, IST constantly monitored and expanded the systems used to connect the employees from home to the systems they needed within the enterprise.
Connections were monitored each day and IST staff worked to keep the home connection experience as close to the at-work experience as possible.
Because of a willingness to embrace this new relationship, HR and IST were responsible for a massive increase in telework capabilities in the county. As the departments continue to work to improve these capabilities, approximately 1,600 employees — around 40 percent of the county’s active workforce — are now able to work from home.
Any successful response by a local government to such a disruption as a global pandemic will, of course, require the cooperation, flexibility and innovativeness of administration as well as every single department.
When the situation requires the enablement of mass-teleworking and a fundamental shift in a government’s operating paradigm, the departments of Human Resources and Information System Technology (or their equivalents) must be prepared to work together, often in new ways.