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APPA Connect on 7/26/2020 by Jason Mereness
The day was March 16, 2020, in St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota. The event was the COVID-19 global pandemic. The task was instantly transforming our department’s probation supervision practices from traditional to almost exclusively remote. This task, while challenging, was not unique to us in Ramsey County Community Corrections. We hope you will find this reflection on our experience a worthwhile perspective.
Like most probation departments throughout the country, Ramsey County traditionally provided supervision through in-person meetings with clients in government offices or in the field. In response to COVID-19, transformative efforts have been made to at least temporarily transition from traditional approaches of probation supervision to almost exclusively remote supervision and services. Social distancing requirements related to COVID-19 have ushered in the exploration of the tele-work/tele-supervision frontier for probation supervision in Ramsey County, and for most departments across the country.
In this article, we will share our transformative probation supervision experience in Ramsey County during the COVID-19 global pandemic event. Specifically, we will present initial efforts made to become tele-ready, share tele-work tools that appear to be working well, and identify what tele-work challenges remain. In doing so, we hope to promote further discussion about tele-work amongst departments and agents.
APPA’s Technology Committee’s recent blog posts have explored tele-work and tele-supervision. The information presented here will focus on tele-work; that is, technology-aided work environments, processes and support mechanisms that allow a community supervision agent to conduct their daily tasks from any location – explicitly not at offices. Check out Eric Tumperi’s previous article where he goes deeper into the definitions of tele-work and tele-supervision.
Prior to March 2020, the term tele-work was not a part of our department’s vernacular. Department laptops and cell phones were not widely available or used by many of our agents. As the COVID-19 global pandemic event became a reality in Ramsey County, the department scrambled to inventory equipment and to identify what was needed to successfully manage remote probation supervision. This inventory process was an attempt to become what we call ‘tele-ready.’ To become tele-ready, our department used our inventories to quickly prioritize the roll-out of all available equipment and made strategic efforts to procure what was still needed. Becoming tele-ready ensured that we would have the tools necessary to do tele-work.
Tele-Work Tools | What’s Working Well
The following tele-work tools appear to be working well for us. We hope that you may be able to benefit from our retrospective look at the process we exercised in becoming tele-ready. These suggestions are based solely on observations within our agency in Ramsey County and are nowhere near exhaustive.
The basic tele-work tools include:
- Laptop and/or tablet
- Laptop docking station and/or hard drive that can be remoted into
- Cell phone and/or integrated desktop phone and laptop software (Voice over Internet Protocol/VoIP)
- Desktop camera/microphone
These foundational tools and processes have enabled us to use several supportive tele-work tools. Here are some that are working well:
- Video conferencing programs/apps
- Audio conferencing options/apps
- Key fobs for agents without cell phones that provide random number codes that can be used to remote login to desktop computers
- Messaging options with screen share capabilities
- Automated phone reporting system for clients
- Standard computer software (Email, Create Documents, Spreadsheets, etc.)
- Document collaboration tools (or software)
- Templates to document remote client contacts (legitimizing tele-supervision)
- Ability to print items remotely or to a location where others can physically mail them
- Streamlined document mailing (sending/receiving) processes
- Digital client files and document repositories
All the above listed tools and processes foster communication and connectivity which are key to doing tele-work! As Patricia O’Hagan mentioned in the previous article, “the need to maintain effective communication and information flow within teams has become paramount to business continuity.” This is true for agent-to-supervisor, agent-to-agent and agent-to-client communication.
Having multiple forms of communication has been beneficial for us as a department and has promoted a culture of innovation as we consider our best options moving forward. For example, having call-in options (versus only having a video option) for web meetings has allowed for more inclusivity. Agents or clients who may struggle with the video technology can still actively participate by calling in.
When it comes to laptops, working with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) allows our staff to work directly and securely from a remote location. This option has been far more efficient than using some type of remote portal to access a desktop computer. For example, remoting in does not allow for the laptop camera and microphone to be functional; working with a VPN allows for full functionality. The integrated desktop phone software/VoIP service has been a game changer. VoIP phone service allows agents to maintain contacts and make phone calls all on one device over the Internet. One of the best benefits of VoIP is that it allows for potential conference/merged phone calls where agents can do direct referrals by calling providers with clients.
Tele-Work Tools | Challenges
No change happens without challenges. The transition from traditional to remote probation supervision is not the exception. The following have been perceived challenges when it comes to operationalizing tele-work tools.
Tele-work challenges include:
- Some agents are not comfortable using the technology required for tele-work
- Identifying what each unit/agent needs to be tele-ready
- Access to technology (devices, hardware, software, Wi-Fi, etc.) could be limited
- IT support has limited resources to address agent technology needs; agents resort to peer support
- System updates, upgrades or password changes can result in agents getting locked out of the system
- Building new or updated processes (including policy and procedure) with new tele-work tools
- Training new staff remotely
- Increased vulnerabilities in network security
Tele-work challenges will become frustrating at times. We have had to make a conscious effort to frame the challenges as simply opportunities to do things better.
This article is meant to be a snapshot look at initial implementation efforts in tele-work for Ramsey County Community Corrections. We hope that this information serves as a starting point for tele-work discussions amongst agents and departments from around the country. It is our hope that by sharing our efforts, experiences, and suggestions around tele-work, that we can inform and successfully grow our tele-work options together.
We hope you have found this article helpful and we invite you to share your experiences with tele-work within your agency. If you have a story to tell, please contact Eric Tumperi, APPA Technology Chair, for more information on how your experiences and findings can be developed and published for the field of probation, parole, community corrections, pretrial and treatment delivery.
Join us in a future blog, in which we will cover Tele-Supervision in Ramsey County.
About the APPA Technology Committee: We are charged with helping to ensure that APPA provides the field of probation, parole, and community corrections with useful and timely information about the uses of technology to enhance and improve community supervision outcomes. We develop position papers, articles, and blogs, as well as conduct field surveys and identify and recruit expert contributors for conferences and webinars. To learn more about how you can be a part of the Technology Committee and contribute to our profession, contact our Committee Chair Eric Tumperi.