IT Boosts Features for Working from Home

As most AzGT office staff telecommute during the pandemic, IT ramps up additional security and communication features

While plenty of employees at Arizona Generation and Transmission Cooperatives (AzGT) are familiar with working remotely to use email or the internet for work, the pandemic made it a necessity to not only use a computer at home but to bring the office there. Information Technology (IT) mobilized over the course of two to three weeks in March so that most AzGT office employees can work remotely and use programs such as SharePoint and SAP in their home offices. Mike Way, AzGT IT service manager, says about 90 employees now do so.

“Priorities shift and we kind of had our feet put to the fire a little bit with this whole scenario,” Way said. “This is really uncharted territory for our cooperative and also just for me as a manager.”

He and Mike Etris, cyber security manager, were at a compliance workshop in Sacramento on the week of March 9th when the coronavirus pandemic made clear that AzGT employees would need to start working from home. While the move was significant, Way, Etris and the rest of the IT and cyber security staff were not caught completely off guard. They had already been testing new security features, such as a dual-factor authentication application called DUO, that would now be put in a real scenario.

“DUO, we were looking at doing that with our user base already but it was going to be some time away, still,” Way explained. “We had done a lot of the testing beforehand. Mike Etris and Colton Ballou (IT system administrator II), they worked pretty closely together to get some of the testing done to ensure that it would work with the platforms that we support.”

The security of DUO comes from the fact that an employee who logs into AzGT’s Virtual Private Network (VPN) on their computer also receives a prompt on their smart phone to verify that they are logging in. The person must know how to log into both their computer and how to unlock their cell phone, which only they would have. With so many employees now working from home, not only has DUO been put to the test; IT now knows that AzGT has ample internet bandwidth in Benson to handle the shift. The department has also used the opportunity to explore and test virtual meeting and cloud computing platforms, such as Ring Central. Way said that it has a reasonable cost and ease of use for employees, which are important at a time when most communication is electronic.

“We have a lot of email communication, instant message communication, and you can’t tell tone through text,” Way said. “I think people are kind of starving a little bit for human interaction and this is a distant way for us to be able to try to cater to those particular needs for people, because innately, humans are social beings.”

J.D. Wallace, AzGT communications, social media and marketing administrator (l) and Mike Way, AzGT IT services manager have a discussion over virtual meeting platform Ring Central about the changes and challenges from the last two months as most office employees work from home.

Way also said that over the past few weeks, some employees have requested additional monitors, docking stations, keyboards or mice to use at home. He said that all an employee needs is approval from their manager for the additional equipment.

“It’s definitely something that when you go from, at minimum, two screens at work down to a much smaller laptop screen, it’s definitely something that you have to get used to,” Way said. “Probably the most difficult part about working remotely on a laptop is the touchpad, if you’re just using that by itself. It’s not really that efficient. Sometimes it can be frustrating, I’m sure.”

The amount of work this move required and the level of service from AzGT’s IT staff has not gone unnoticed. And Way also wanted to thank his coworkers for all of their dedication.

“Thank you to the department, the cyber security team, Amber Gill (network administrator II) and Mike Etris and then all the rest of the IT staff for just really being a part of the team and making this thing work for everybody at home,” Way said. “The department would like to thank all of the user base for being flexible and working with us through this difficult time. I know it’s not what they’re actually used to on a day-to-day basis but we’re working through this together and if at any point they need anything they can reach out to myself or Mike Etris.”