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Leaders in telework

Wednesday - August 12, 2020

It is hard to believe it has only been roughly six months. However, in that short half year, state government, along with the whole nation, has had to face a hostile invader and completely revamp the way we get stuff done.

The COVID-19 experience has redefined crisis management and proven the Office of Management and Enterprise Services and the Department of Human Services serve Oklahoma with efficient management and innovative solutions for state enterprise.

Beginning in March, as the nation went into lockdown, Oklahoma state employees found themselves isolated in their homes, away from traditional offices. For DHS workers, the change was timely. New director Justin Brown, with less than a year’s experience in government work, was looking for solutions that aligned with a personal management philosophy he calls finding a “true north,” which has become part of the foundation of his state leadership.

“I think we’re past the point of no return with telework because of the proven efficiencies,” Brown said in a recent OMES podcast.

Telework, of course, includes working from home, typically with a laptop; communicating and sharing information with colleagues online and in virtual teleconferencing. Brown’s “true north” strategy means focusing on customer needs as a primary goal. Innovative technology and technowizards at OMES make this happen at a surprisingly high-performance level.

Brown learned DHS could successfully serve 99% of its customers remotely – either online or through its call center. Additionally, nearly 87% of DHS’ workforce is equally as productive or more productive working from home, and more than 93% want to work from home part- or full-time.

Brown reports DHS was working with a budget under the stress of a budget shortfall. Telework is clearly a silver lining for saving money. DHS is looking at selling off some of its real estate holdings while partnering with schools, hospitals, libraries and churches, for example, to embed services within the communities to break transportation and employment barriers. But the real benefit comes from the ability for DHS workers to function at a higher level.

“The new normal for us includes a commitment to telework,” Brown said. “We found that it was rough to do, but we did [it] with the help from OMES.”

The bittersweet change that took place beginning in March should not be underestimated. Carissa Terry, OMES Information Services director of outreach, said the OMES Service Desk received over 28,000 service requests between March and May. Most of these requests represent telework setup not just for OMES but also OMES customers like DHS and numerous additional agencies and departments.

“In addition to the hardware, laptops, etc.,” Terry said, “we had to ramp up training capacity to get these employees online with collaborative tools like Microsoft Teams while working remotely. We also deployed things like chat and chat bot technology.”

This gargantuan mission could occupy any organization, even the most practiced and agile. At the same time, OMES IS had to deploy industry and vendor partners to get the hardware and other resources in the pipeline while making it happen on the ground for employees.

“We worked with our industry partners to navigate global supply chains and stay competitive in order to get critical technology like laptops faster in order to equip state employees so they could work from home,” Terry said.

Additionally, IS faced security concerns for how to deploy industry-leading protection for the state’s teleworkers.

The final piece of the puzzle is an enormous job unto itself. DHS and Oklahoma Employment Security Commission officials praise OMES’ ability to establish telephone service for the new model of administration. For that, OMES relies on the “telephone lady,” Allie Larman, who leads the OMES Communications Technology team.

Within a matter of hours of the COVID-19 shutdown, the State Department of Health was able to provide COVID-19 call centers, with 24/7 availability, connecting citizens with medical professionals. Shortly thereafter, they doubled the call capacity for the state’s five major call centers at SDH, DHS, OESC, Tax Commission and OMES.

“We prepared 15,000 phone numbers for teleworkers,” Larman said. “Including voicemail, call forwarding and email to make teleworking seamless. In addition, the call centers are scalable to accommodate new growth.”

The team also set up the contact tracing call center for the health department and 211 lines.

DHS uses the 211 HeartLine, which gives callers access to a myriad of social services. When COVID-19 took off, the government wanted to look for something simpler to use, and 211 was a simple way to access both information and counsel.

“It was exciting to actually help folks [who] were scared and needed to talk to health professionals,” Larman said. “We were pretty excited to make that happen. It really opened the door to put the medical advice in place. The contact tracing was [set] up within a week and a half. They have close to 500 agents working on that.”

OESC is still operating with over 500 workers.

“It’s been challenging with OESC because our training time is six weeks,” Larman said. “It’s amazing; the agents are trying to stay positive. I know they get stressed.”

OMES has also set up live agent chats for OMES, OESC, the health department and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. To relieve the massive call volume pressure, there are different chat bots for these organizations. The bots’ algorithms can handle many inquiries, either delivering a preloaded response or forwarding callers to agents.

“When OESC started,” Larman said. “We brought in retired folks and volunteers. They went from having twelve people to 1,100 a day. The OESC team worked tirelessly. I don’t know how many times I’ve received emails at midnight on a weekend. But there’s always more to do.”

Despite many sudden changes to our regular work routines, OMES and DHS prove the adaptability of state government through collaboration, problem-solving and an integral desire to serve Oklahoma. We don’t back down in the face of chaos. We work together. We overcome. We lead.