How Illinois Quickly Set Up Remote Work for 27K Employees

With basic telework software and a relationship with a company — Citrix — already in place, the state was able to expand remote work capacity for 10,000 employees in a week, and 27,000 to date.

by / May 26, 2020
Illinois state capitol building Shutterstock

It’s been two months since most state governments issued stay-at-home orders, and it will be many more before they have a clear idea of what government operations will look like for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, good government means good telework, and the transition to working from home has been an urgent challenge for all 50 states.

But some success stories are proving it doesn’t have to be a debilitating one; with limited remote-access technology and a working relationship with the virtual networking company Citrix already in place, the state of Illinois set up telework capacity for tens of thousands of staff in a matter of days.

As Chief Technology Officer Lori Sorenson tells it, Illinois found the transition relatively painless because it didn’t have to start from scratch. Prior to the pandemic, she said, the state had relatively few staff working from home: a maximum of 3,000 people a day using Citrix’s remote-access solution, out of more than 50,000 desktop users employed by the state. When early discussions about widespread telework and what-if planning started at the beginning of March, Sorenson said, state agencies were consulting their continuity of operations plans and taking inventory: hardware, data usage, availability of laptops, how many laptop orders were already in the pipeline, call center capabilities, et cetera.

Having gathered that information, Sorenson and Illinois’ IT staff set about scenario planning, not knowing exactly how long the shutdown might last.

“We’ve gathered the information, we’ve come to know what we have, and (then) we were having the discussions: what if, what would we do, where would we need to increase those capabilities?” she said. “The week before, we started making those decisions — reaching out to our vendors where we knew we wanted to increase remote access, and for laptops, and beginning to place those orders.”

Sorenson said Citrix was a logical partner for the project, because Illinois was already using some of the company’s products in a more limited capacity, including Remote PC Access, Workspace and Citrix’s application delivery controller.

For Citrix, which serves more than 400,000 organizations worldwide — including local governments — the challenge with Illinois was less a matter of scale than of time. Steve Nguyen, the company’s vice president and general manager for U.S. public sector business, said Illinois’ staff approached Citrix with four requirements: a “BYOD” (bring your own device) approach to allowing people to work from home; the ability to access the state’s network on personal devices; a hybrid or multi-cloud solution mixed with on-premise storage, flexible enough to work with more than one cloud option; and a week of time to get at least 25,000 employees up and running.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 20, set to go into effect the next day.

“They were going to send all their employees home Monday morning. They wanted to make sure when they sent them home, they had instructions for how to access the network,” Nguyen said.

Sorenson said her work with Citrix mostly entailed adding capacity and communicating with staff. That meant buying more licenses for a Citrix tool called Remote PC Access, buying some services from Citrix to get the network properly configured at scale, buying additional load balancers, working with the state’s data center to expand server capacity for the added burden, and finally, giving employees a link to a Web browser through which they could access virtual versions of their desktops and applications.

She said the transition would have been more difficult without the necessary hardware in place, such as servers and controllers; or without trained staff who could manage user issues; or without a prior relationship with a vendor of the technology they needed. Working with Citrix, it took Illinois a matter of days to stand up the additional network capacity and write instructions and guides for employees making the transition.

Sorenson said more than 10,000 employees shifted to remote work within the first week, 14,000 the first month, and about 27,000 to date.

“Most employees have adapted very well, very quickly, and have been able to be productive and keep operations moving,” she said. “Working remotely does have its limitations for security purposes. You don’t have the ability to print, and there are certainly jobs throughout certain agencies where it impacts the nature of their processes, but for those needing to remotely access files and applications, and perform those functions, it’s working very well.”

Nguyen said one lesson governments might take from COVID-19 is the importance of having a disaster recovery or remote work strategy ready to deploy statewide, as opposed to office-wide, as well as making sure it can perform and accommodate any workload.

“What we saw with a lot of our customers was, once they saw that they satisfied the initial needs of dealing with the crisis and getting their employees home, the second part was figuring out extended work-from-home,” he said. “We looked at their network to really optimize the performance and give them the ability to have not only the scale but the performance the users were looking for.”

Sorenson was confident that Illinois now has such a network, and the knowledge that its staff can work wherever they need to, come what may.

“Think about disaster planning,” she said. “Pre-COVID, if an area of the state or a building were to become inoperable … we went in, looked at our inventory, got laptops out, and set up the displaced staff at another office location … This (remote work) is now another option.”

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Andrew Westrope Staff Writer

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.


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