NRC’s telework agility built with security, trained employees

The key to moving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s workforce from 98% onsite to 98% remote when work-from-home orders were issued was preparation.

The key to moving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) workforce from 98% onsite to 98% remote this spring was preparation, the director of the agency’s IT Services Development and Operations Division said.

“Not only are we changing the environment that people are working in from at the building to home, but we’re also changing the means by which they’re getting to our networks, we’re changing the technologies they’re using in order to get secure access to information all at one time,” Thomas Ashley said during a recent FCW virtual event titled “Tools and Tactics for Better Telework.”

"Until about two years ago, we ran largely a desktop situation with no mobility capability," Ashley said, but recent technology-adoption efforts eased the transition. In early March, NRC employees received pamphlets on how to use Microsoft Office 365 at home, connect to the agency’s virtual-private network (VPN) and access NRC’s application storefront using Citrix.

The department also hosted an agencywide Telework Test Day, when the number of NRC employees working remotely went from a couple hundred -- the average number on a given day during normal times -- to 1,400, or almost half the agency’s total workforce, Ashley said.

NRC also worked with service providers and the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that its Trusted Internet Connection (TIC) could handle the leap in usage.

“We have a very robust network, but it’s a private MPLS cloud,” Ashley said. That worked well for physical workstations onsite at NRC offices, but “our Trusted Internet Connection was not sufficient for a full remote telework situation.”

NRC was operating off about 400 megabit/sec connection from a TIC to the department’s headquarters and quadrupled that in the matter of a week. Staff created dashboards to monitor and balance incoming internet traffic via the VPN, and they stood up automatic alerts and intervention to problems. Currently, the VPN supports almost 3,000 concurrent connections.

“Technology adoption happened at a rate that I’ve never seen before,” Ashley said. “People were adapting to an agency-issued workstation failure by adjusting their means of connecting via their home computer and Office 365, and using our enterprise identity hub to authenticate the one-time passwords.”

Some of the changes may be here to stay, he added. For instance, NRC created a web portal through which licensees can send information securely. A backend workflow distributes that information to the appropriate offices, removing an old, more-tedious physical distribution process.

“We learned quickly that much of what we do in operations can be done remotely,” Ashley said. “‘Portable work’ is what we’ve labeled it here at the NRC, but my contractors and government workforce has continued to work as effectively -- and some have argued more efficiently -- in a remote capacity than we have been to date.”

He also attributes “collaboration at a level that the NRC has not seen before” to tech adoption. For example, the department now averages 50,000 Skype sessions per week.

Additionally, a training center in Tennessee that provided in-person instruction pivoted to virtual instruction and has offered 960 self-study and instructor-led courses to some 38,000 students. The department is also onboarding new staff virtually, including summer interns.

The biggest lesson learned, Ashley said, is the importance of training the workforce to use the technology. “Technology moves a lot faster than technology adoption, so we learned that we have to continue to invest to get that education to our user community,” he said. “We have to learn how to shepherd people to technology to better enable them to work from wherever it is they may be.”

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