octa-covid-response-featured

OCTA planned for years for remote work, helping employees to provide essential services during pandemic

Darrell E. Johnson, Chief Executive Officer at the Orange County Transportation Authority, addresses more than 300 administrative employees, referring to a PowerPoint presentation everyone can see and taking questions from the large gathering at his regular CEO Connection town hall.

The only difference is that the April CEO Connection is being held virtually from his office, while hundreds of employees watch and ask questions from their homes, connected via Microsoft Teams as if they’re in the same room.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has left businesses and public agencies everywhere scrambling to figure out how to allow employees to work remotely, while continuing to provide efficient – and often essential – services to the customers and the communities they serve.

The effects of the pandemic emerged unexpectedly and grew exponentially in days, leaving some agencies and businesses struggling to make the transition, others saying they were doing all they could just to keep the lights on.

Fortunately for the Orange County Transportation Authority, years of crisis planning, a wide-ranging pilot program for remote work, and a years-long effort toward cloud computing has put the agency in a strong position to make an efficient transition that allows most administrative employees – more than 500 in all – to remain just as productive from home as if they were sitting at their desks in the office.

“While no organization can perfectly prepare for this kind of crisis, I’m incredibly proud of the extensive planning and implementation that has occurred in recent years across all divisions at OCTA,” said CEO Johnson. “The vision and thoughtful approach by our staff has positioned us well to withstand the challenges of today’s business environment and to continue providing vital services to the public.”

Effectively responding to this kind of event started with emergency operations, crisis communications and continuity of operations planning, which included regular exercises and drills involving all of OCTA’s operational and business units. Those involved learned how to communicate effectively in a crisis, such as a natural disaster, cyber incident or physical attack.

Participants were faced with the questions: What if the 12-story administrative headquarters in Orange was no longer available? How might the agency be able to continue to communicate and to work offsite?

Over the last several years, OCTA’s Information Services team began transitioning the agency toward cloud computing, utilizing Microsoft cloud programs so that employees could access files from work, at home, or anywhere they could log in.

That effort began around 2014, when OCTA transitioned to an internet-based phone system, allowing employees to access their phone lines through computers when not at their workstations.

OCTA also helped many employees transition from a desktop computer to working on Microsoft Surface laptops, allowing them to log in from home Wi-Fi with the same access they had while inside the office – access to email and all work files and servers.

OCTA trained employees on Microsoft Teams beginning in 2018, allowing employees to share files among coworkers, make phone calls and host virtual meetings.

Also in 2018, OCTA’s Human Resources and Organizational Development team worked to introduce an innovative remote-work pilot program. The six-month pilot allowed more than 30 employees to work from home typically one day a week.

The results of that trial run showed that employees were successful in connecting to work via home offices and remained as productive – and in some cases even more productive, with few distractions and no extended commuting time.

When the state of California issued a stay-at-home order to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March, OCTA was prepared to act.

A majority of administrative employees were able to quickly transition to working from home. That included nearly 300 employees by way of direct access on Microsoft Surfaces and OCTA desktops set up at home, and another 200-plus via the remote-work software on home computers, giving them access to all work files.

Because of advanced planning and the agency previously embracing the concept of remote work, the security systems and the primary infrastructure to support so many employees suddenly working remotely were already in place.

Within the first week of the stay-at-home order, CEO Johnson set up his first virtual conference available to all administrative employees, so he could give updates on OCTA operations. He was also joined at that online meeting by a doctor from the Orange County Health Care Agency, who answered employees’ coronavirus health questions in real time.

Now regular work meetings within and between departments, traditionally held in administrative conference rooms, have transitioned to calls using virtual meeting technology. In the month before the pandemic, 92 meetings were hosted through Microsoft Teams at OCTA. The month after, that number jumped to 1,005.

During the same time, private chat messages through Teams increased from 2,000 to 8,000.

Through the crisis-planning process, OCTA already contracted for emergency employee notifications through email, phone calls and texts, and that system was quickly expanded to ensure all employees receive important OCTA updates during the pandemic response.

All of this has allowed employees to remain productive and continue pushing forward on important transportation projects such as the $1.9-billion I-405 improvements between Costa Mesa and the Los Angeles County Line, the I-5 South County improvements between SR-73 and El Toro Road, and the OC Streetcar in Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

It has also allowed administrative employees to still support vital transit services, including OC ACCESS paratransit service and the regular OC Bus service for those who continue to rely on the bus to reach essential jobs and medical appointments.

“We started in a good position and we continue to learn as we move forward, refining and developing even better practices,” Johnson said. “I hope that OCTA can serve as an example from which other organizations can learn valuable lessons, too. We’re all in this together for the good of our community.”

This article was released by the Orange County Transportation Authority.