Illinois Goes Big and Goes Home

Imagine it's your job is to oversee everything to do with technology in your workplace. One day, a call comes in that changes your life: your entire organization - thousands of employees - will be working from home. ASAP. Here is how the State of Illinois managed to transition their workforce to fully remote in a matter of days.

PODCAST | 25m
June 3, 2020
S1:Ep3

Executive summary

  • Defining a business continuity plan that is flexible to meet unexpected circumstances
  • Giving employees their choice of environment with work flexibility options
  • Exploring Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategies for more efficient flexible work models

Featured voices

  • Melanie Green, host
  • Ron Guerrier, Secretary of Innovation and Technology, state of Illinois
  • Jennifer Ricker, Assistant Secretary, Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology
  • Tammy Bjelland, Founder and CEO, Workplaceless
  • Kestrel Linder, Co-founder and CEO, GiveCampus

Melanie Green (Host):

It's a 1941, England. The darkest days of World War II. London, Belfast, Manchester and other cities are all being bombed mercilessly. Britain desperately needs to gain the upper hand. So Prime Minister Winston Churchill puts out the order to train hundreds of spies to gather intelligence on the Germans.

Winston Churchill :

Twice in a single generation, the catastrophe of world war has fallen upon us.

Melanie Green (Host):

He tasks the Chief of British Security Coordination, Sir William Stevenson to find a secure, remote location for a top secret espionage training center. But where? In England? Too risky. Stevenson would have to look farther a field, beyond the reach of German bombers.

Melanie Green (Host):

The answer lay thousands of miles away from England, across the ocean in a small sleepy Canadian village, about an hour outside of Toronto. And thus in late 1941, Camp X was born. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it, "The clenched fist that would provide the knockout blow to the axis powers." Designed as a top secret training school, it was the first official site for British, Canadian and American intelligence officers during the Second World War. Spies and training were relocated to the new secret remote work location. They were given lessons in code breaking, hand to hand combat and taught how to use explosives to blow up bridges and railways.

Melanie Green (Host):

A group of clever scientists working in secrecy came up with classic spy devices. Radios disguised as plain suitcases, a camera that shoots bullets, a sword disguised as a cane, a lipstick tube concealing a dagger. Created in this remote location, these brilliant innovations helped the spies stay alive behind enemy lines. Another innovation came from Pat Bailey, an electrical engineer who headed up communications at Camp X. Bailey adapted special equipment that could send countless coded messages between New York and the UK to aid in their war time collaboration.

Melanie Green (Host):

In all, it's estimated that up to 2,000 people were trained at Camp X, thousands of miles from the British intelligence headquarters in London, England. It was a remote work scenario with a head office that was giving the orders from thousands of miles away. Yet the team at Camp X were able to put their plans into action and send their spies abroad with their individual missions. Ultimately that distant synchronization of forces helped win the war. And now so many decades later stands as proof that you can create a large scale remote work plan that can have spectacular and historic results.

Melanie Green (Host):

My name is Melanie Green. You're listening to Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix. Luckily we're not at war, but we have had to mobilize our workforce to keep our businesses and companies afloat. The stakes are high and the landscape is unpredictable.

Ron Guerrier:

A boxer once said, "Everyone has a plan until they're punched in the mouth." And I would say, Mother Nature punched us in the mouth.

Melanie Green (Host):

That's Ron Guerrier. He's the Secretary of Innovation and Technology for the state of Illinois. That punch in the mouth from Mother Nature was of course the pandemic. That's what it felt like to Ron when he realized how quickly he'd have to respond and get the entire workforce of the state out of their offices and working at home. Before the pandemic, the majority of frontline state employees in Illinois worked in government offices. In a matter of days, the state shifted gears and put a plan in action to support 25,000 new remote workers.

Ron Guerrier:

My first initial thought was this is going to be a challenge because in the States, work from home was not something that was a norm.

Jennifer Ricker:

From a statewide perspective, we have a number of different devices sitting on desks, different ages, they might be running different operating systems. So there were challenges with that as well. So all of that kind of happening at once, along with the majority of the state workforce, trying to go home at once, it's really that volume. That was such a challenge for us.

Melanie Green (Host):

That's Jennifer Ricker, the Assistant Secretary of the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology. She was focused on the operation side of that rapid switch to thousands working at home.

Jennifer Ricker:

I'll just say that our state and I think many states were not necessarily a mobile workforce. So we took a look at our current tools and then eventually landed on expanding with a Citrix product that really allowed us to utilize the capability to have virtual desktop, essentially for employees to be able to work off of their own personal devices from home.

Melanie Green (Host):

Such a dramatic shift in planning meant a new strategy and a lot of attention to details around security.

Ron Guerrier:

One of the reasons we have security is to protect the data. So the person responsible for data, needs to understand what this new construct looks like.

Melanie Green (Host):

But for Ron and his team, security wasn't the most challenging part of shifting an entire state government to remote work. The real enemy was within.

Ron Guerrier:

The bigger challenge, there was this psychology of change, getting people used to this new norm. What does this look like? What does it feel like? How do I get my support? The screens look different. I used to have two screens. Now I have one.

Jennifer Ricker:

Since they're really remoting into their desktop, there's nothing downloaded onto their PC, we're not adding additional unmanaged devices onto our network and really we're able to prevent users from being able to either copy or download or print out to their home devices.

Melanie Green (Host):

So there were plenty of technical details. Remember, this is the government. And on top of that, the employees had to get into their new work from home mindset.

Ron Guerrier:

You work from home, you have a whole bunch of other factors. Does every person logging in, have the same level of wifi accessibility? Or do they realize that when they're working and their son is playing a game like Fortnite, it might drain their bandwidth.

Melanie Green (Host):

It was a challenge. Calls from employees to the help desk increased tenfold.

Ron Guerrier:

So what we did is we created a drop in session. So from, I believe it was 8:00 AM until 7:00 PM, we just had an open Webex and anyone could actually log in, on that Webex and just ask open questions. And we answered the questions.

Melanie Green (Host):

So where do managers and tech support teams start supporting a remote workforce?

Ron Guerrier:

You have to give people patience and really understand that they have to be a little bit more accountable for the environment they're working in. So you might have to tell Junior to get off the internet for a second. So if you have two kids who are on Zoom, because they're doing e-learning, you may want to time how you do e-learning, when you have your whole family and your whole ecosystem, they're kind of conflicting with your work. So those are the things that we kind of had to do. And we actually send, to this day, reminders, work from home reminders. Remember to log off, remember keep yourself on mute. If you don't have to do video, don't drain the system, just go audio. So it's just these reminders to say, hey, we're all going through this together. Here are some tidbits that you can learn from and that has helped tremendously.

Melanie Green (Host):

Ron acknowledges the toll that reorganizing a workforce of thousands can take. It's important to take breaks when you're online all day.

Ron Guerrier:

I have an older sister, who's a doctor of psychology here in Chicago. She runs a nonprofit. She has been on local news talking as an advisor about how the psychology of change, the psychology of stress and how to kind of overcome that. So essentially I'm doing some of the things she's telling me to do. Take breaks, take a walk, try to kind of schedule things.

Melanie Green (Host):

That awareness of the need for digital wellness is especially important when you're getting thousands of employees up and running remotely. Jennifer and her team were working flat out.

Jennifer Ricker:

Our teams were working for sure, seven days a week. I bet you several of them were probably working 20 hours a day. I don't know how some of them got any rest for a pretty extended period of time as we were getting this going. Because, of course, it's still new to some extent, it's new to most of the users that were on it. And then the scale of it was so great that that added another challenge too. So yeah, we had teams working to stand this up almost around the clock really.

Melanie Green (Host):

It's one of the ironies of working at home. For some managers, there's a fear that the employees won't put in a full day, but for many, the reality is that the work day never ends.

Ron Guerrier:

It's two in the morning and I'm at work. I need to discipline myself because I know as a leader, if I send a message to a colleague or someone on my team at 2:00 AM, it sends this false narrative that I expect them to respond at 2:05 AM, and that's not what I want. So I have to also be very cognizant of how I work from home, could be imitated or could concern other people. So I'm very aware of those things as well.

Melanie Green (Host):

Ron is also keenly aware of the challenge of connecting thousands of employees working from home.

Ron Guerrier:

So last week, for example, every day of the week, a different leader would have like a trivia for 30 minutes, log in to this video chat and we have trivia contests. And then they sent pictures, unfortunately of me as well back when I was a DJ. Could you figure out what Ron's favorite song was when he was a DJ? Right? And so just to get everyone feel a sense of community, but actually be able to see each other.

Melanie Green (Host):

So pictures of Ron, back when he was a DJ were a big help in building morale. In fact, visuals have been a big part of the strategy to keep people connected. Some employees couldn't see how what they were doing at home was fitting into the big picture. So Ron had his team send out weekly infographics to show how much workload had come in and how much had been accomplished.

Ron Guerrier:

In the absence of correspondence with your peer at the desk next to you, you don't really understand how your piece is contributing to the bigger organism. So the infographics help everyone really take a step back and say, hey, this week we did that, right. Have a sense of pride and purpose that we might be all in our bubbles, but collectively we deliver for the state of Illinois. And I think that's something that everyone could be proud of. So when we get back to the office, eventually we can look back and say, remember what we did during this period.

Melanie Green (Host):

So now a few months into their mass migration to the home office, both Ron and Jennifer finally have a moment to exhale and to look back on what's being accomplished.

Jennifer Ricker:

I think in some ways, it's allowed us to leapfrog with some technologies, get users and some of our customers basically who might've been resistant to the idea that this would be possible and that we could be really effective working this way. I think this has shown that it can be really effective and kind of allows us to leapfrog what might've taken us otherwise a year to roll out something like this or more.

Ron Guerrier:

I would say we could sustain this for the foreseeable future, what we would have to do if it went on for more than six months, we would have to really start looking at end user computes and ensuring that the temporary setups we have, how do we firm them up a little bit more? But I think in the foreseeable future, the technology will definitely sustain itself. It's proven, it's getting the psychology and really pivoting to instead of a short term, this is a near term solution. I think we're ready for it.

Melanie Green (Host):

It's a solution that's working. And through the pandemic, Ron understands at a personal level, the importance of their mass remote work experiment and what it means for the people of Illinois.

Ron Guerrier:

My brother actually lives here as well. And he works in the ER and he has to wear PPE every day. And so I know that when my chief data officer, for example, creates a visualized map of the state of Illinois and talking about where there's needs for PPE or ventilators or whatever it is, I know that the work she's doing is directly contributing to the wellness of my own brother.

Tammy Bjelland:

Hi, my name is Tammy Bjelland and I'm the Founder and CEO of Workplaceless. So really organizations come to us when they have realized the benefits of expanding a remote work policy, and then figuring out or realizing that they need to figure out what to do next.

Melanie Green (Host):

And what companies need to do next is focus on two important human elements of the remote work landscape: communication and trust.

Tammy Bjelland:

The very first thing is consider whether you have a culture of trust within your organization. And then communication really is key because we're all feeling very disconnected right now and we don't know what's going on at the business level, but also at the community level, at the national level, at the international level. In a longterm situation, we recommend coming together and settling on expectations around communication. So having a communication charter, making sure that productivity and performance metrics are appropriate for a remote environment. And so those processes are very time intensive.

Melanie Green (Host):

And as Ron Guerrier in Illinois found out, it's important to recognize that the remote workspace will be different from the home office.

Tammy Bjelland:

Whereas an office is often a place where you have individuals working together, relying on traditional methods of collaboration or definitely relying on real time communication and collaboration. And in remote work, you need to fundamentally just rethink all of those ways that you work together because you don't have that instant access to somebody sitting next to you. You don't have those organic conversations at the water cooler, or you don't have that visible cue of somebody sitting at their office well before starting time and well into the evening to provide visibility of themselves so that they can access additional opportunities.

Melanie Green (Host):

Tammy makes the point that companies should also consider their legal responsibilities to employees who move to remote work.

Tammy Bjelland:

You need to consider what kind of stipulations you have outlined in your remote work policy for creating a safe space in your home to work. So that's one thing that often employers don't necessarily think about immediately, but all of the laws that apply to you when you have an office are going to still apply to you when your employees are not in your office. So you have to think of their homes and their offices as extensions of your business.

Melanie Green (Host):

Tammy's advice to anyone looking to plan for more rapid moves to remote work?

Tammy Bjelland:

Let's pretend that all of this hadn't happened yet, and we were about to experience this whole situation again. An organization should create a list of the fundamental apps, software that somebody should be able to have access to at home and a laptop of course, in order to access that technology. I do recommend in the future, even if this doesn't happen again, I do recommend organizations test out their remote work policies and have everybody work from home a certain amount of time on a regular basis, just to test out those policies, those procedures, that infrastructure.

Melanie Green (Host):

Illinois had a tech support team working around the clock to make their transition to remote work possible. But what about smaller organizations and businesses? How have they been doing without that kind of large scale support and access to tech

Kestrel Linder:

I'm Kestrel Linder, I'm co-founder and CEO of GiveCampus. GiveCampus is a fundraising platform built specifically for nonprofit educational institutions. So we work with colleges, universities, and K-12 schools around the country to help them raise money so that they can deliver the best possible quality education and make that education both affordable and keep it as accessible as possible to students.

Melanie Green (Host):

GiveCampus has 34 employees. As they establish themselves and started to grow, the company was moving shop every few months. Earlier this year, they found the perfect workspace in a funky neighborhood in Washington, DC. They designed and planned their dream office. They moved their things into the new space then, well we all know what happened next. The pandemic hit.

Kestrel Linder:

There are still a lot of boxes in the office that haven't been unpacked, not much hanging on the walls. So it was the epitome of an anticlimactic experience.

Melanie Green (Host):

Kestrel needed a work from home plan. He did have something of a baseline. Pre-pandemic GiveCampus Employees spent a lot of time on the road. Trade shows, conferences and a second office in San Francisco. And they'd accumulated some of the remote work technology they needed. Speakers, microphones, computers and cameras to monitor their empty office space.

Kestrel Linder:

So we've had some practice over the years and built some of the muscles you need to be able to communicate effectively when people are in different locations. Now that's not to say that it hasn't been an adjustment to all of a sudden having every single person in a different location. But we were set up with the technology that we needed and we were set up with some of the comfort level across the team to be able to communicate and keep doing work productively without all being in the same physical space. So we did have a good foundation, I think, to be able to adapt to this new environment,

Melanie Green (Host):

Even with his company's work on the road experience, Kestrel that he was in new and unfamiliar territory.

Kestrel Linder:

Wasn't just having two or four or six people on the road. It was having 34 people in 34 different locations with 34 different internet connections and 34 different work environments. So, that certainly has been an adjustment.

Melanie Green (Host):

Kestrel also made the decision to take the long view of the move to remote work.

Kestrel Linder:

So it was important, we felt, that people make the adjustment and not hold out hope that tomorrow or the next day or even next week, they were going to be returned to their previous working routine of commuting to the office and working from the office. We wanted people to settle in at home because we knew from the very beginning that this was going to last a while.

Melanie Green (Host):

GiveCampus, like a lot of companies during the pandemic, leveraged video conferencing and collaboration tools to recreate office conversations. They even recreated an office retreat that had been canceled after the lockdown happened.

Kestrel Linder:

Instead, we tried to recreate as much as we could, the same magic that we would have gotten from that retreat. And as part of that, on a Friday afternoon, we held a happy hour/lunch because about a fifth of our team is in San Francisco. So it was lunchtime for them, happy hour time for people on the East coast. And what we did was we randomly arranged the whole company in four to five person groups to have happy hour or lunch together. And at the halfway mark, 30 minutes in, we switched and you were thrown into a totally different random group of four to five people.

Melanie Green (Host):

Kestrel says that human connection is just as important as the tech side of remote work. He spends a lot of time thinking about the best ways to foster the wellbeing of his team.

Kestrel Linder:

If that means taking a mental health day, that's fine. If that means being a little bit less productive or doing a few less things today or this week, that is fine. The longterm health, both physical and mental of our team is much more important than anything anyone will accomplish in a day or a week or a month. And we've tried to really emphasize that to everyone so that they take it to heart.

Melanie Green (Host):

While Kestrel looks forward to unpacking those boxes in the hallway of their new DC digs. He says that he and his team have learned a lot from their experience with remote work. It's brought them together and made them stronger.

Kestrel Linder:

I think at the very least, our business will be even more prepared than it was this time around to quickly adjust its behavior and adjust its operating practices and react to the beginnings of the next pandemic or something like a pandemic.

Melanie Green (Host):

Chances are, we've all been working differently these past few months, maybe working in ways we never thought possible. Whether we're running a small business or working for a big company, we are more prepared than ever to face unexpected challenges. Our secret weapons may not be cameras that shoot bullets or daggers hidden in lipstick tubes. But what we do have now is the ability to scale up quickly, problem solve on the fly and we can work as a team even when we're not right beside each other. That's it for this week. I'm Melanie Green. You've been listening to Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix. Tune in next week for look at the education industry and how schools have had to enable students and staff alike to work and learn remotely. That's at citrix.com/remoteworks.

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