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Remote work tools go from '0 to 100' in Corona

This city has turned to technology -- like Citrix virtual desktops -- to maintain services in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. CIO Chris McMasters discusses the lessons already learned.

Although the coronavirus pandemic escalated faster than municipal officials might have expected, the city of Corona, Calif., has been able to adapt -- using remote work tools such as Microsoft Teams and Citrix virtual desktops -- and keep its government services running.

City CIO Chris McMasters has been open about the municipality's remote-work preparations. A week after the state issued its shelter-in-place order, he spoke about how those preparations had helped in an emergency.

"We've kept the government running, and they're still providing services," he said. "Most of our services have not closed; we've been offering them online."

Going from 0 to 100

McMasters noted the city, county and state declared a state of emergency in a quick progression earlier this month. Businesses were shut down, and people were asked to shelter in place.

"Once [the state] had declared the shelter in place [policy], we had to figure out how we were going to get everyone remotely working," he said. The policy was announced on March 19 and went into effect that night.

Although many city employees cannot work from home, such as those in the police and fire departments and workers maintaining public utilities, McMasters said about one-quarter of municipal workers are now doing their jobs from home. More employees, he said, are being onboarded each day.

"We spun everything up pretty quick," he said. "I think the biggest hiccup we had was just fine-tuning it."

As long as they have an OK connection, it seems like they're able to do all their work.
Chris McMastersCIO, city of Corona

McMasters said the rapid onset of the crisis meant long days of setup.

"We had to do some fine-tuning there, because we did not expect to deploy this quickly," he said. "We were in the stages of building out profiles for departments, and that went from zero to 100."

Remote work during shelter in place

The city began to move its operations to the cloud two years ago and had deployed Citrix Workspace, which virtualizes desktops and applications, toward that end. As Corona uses a cloud-based product, McMasters said, the additional remote-work strain has not overwhelmed the local infrastructure.

"Performance-wise, it's working very well, because [the user demand] is not all coming back to the city," he said. "As long as they have an OK connection, it seems like they're able to do all their work."

The technology has also enabled the city to sidestep some of the provisioning bottlenecks that other organizations -- looking to rapidly implement remote-work policies -- have encountered.

"Because we're virtualizing the desktop, it's pretty device-agnostic," McMasters said. "We have people with all kinds of devices -- Macs, Android -- you name it, I've seen it. The majority don't have problems."

The nature of the pandemic has put technology at center stage. McMasters noted that the city would typically use its emergency operations center to convene, but the necessity of social distancing has made in-person collaboration less than ideal.

"All of our directors now are just remote-dialing in [to meetings] using [Microsoft] Teams," he said. "We're running the Citrix platform in the background, and I'm running Teams for collaborative meetings."

McMasters said the city deployed Teams a year ago, but adoption was slow. Now, emergency personnel are collaborating on pandemic plans using the Microsoft software, and other officials are using it to keep services, like permitting, running.

Teams is also helping the city run an emergency operations telephone line for its citizens. McMasters said the hotline had been set up using Cisco VoIP -- so it could be manned remotely -- and he had set up a Teams instance that answered frequently asked questions. Library and recreation workers, whose facilities are closed, man the line from home.

Drawing lessons and looking to the future

The municipality's officials have been happy with the rapid shift the technology has enabled, but McMasters said earlier planning could have made the transition to remote work smoother. He said "table-topping," or running through how the crisis might play out with other department leaders, could have been a productive exercise.

Although the crisis will continue for some time, McMasters said there were already insights to glean from the response. Notably, remote work has had a positive effect on productivity.

"People usually work more [when they work from home], because they don't have to get up, get ready for work and drive to work -- they just hop on and start doing their work," he said. "People tend to work later, too, because they tend to balance their life a little bit better."

McMasters said he had seen employees log on as early as 4 a.m., and others stop at around 11 p.m. With employees taking advantage of such a shift, he said, government could gain flexibility -- and provide services beyond the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. city hall hours.

"Crisis and stress induce people to change … and maybe rethink how they were doing things," he said. "Suddenly, you have to rethink how you're doing your work and how you're going to operate. That doesn't happen often in government. You're basically forcing a paradigm shift."

The drive to reconsider operations to make them more effective, McMasters said, is a positive thing.

"When we come through the end of this, I think that change will be something that lasts," he said.

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