Beginning in late March, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders issued in the vast majority of states began to result in millions of federal government employees teleworking, many for the first time. The US military was especially unprepared for this new “distance working” with increased network traffic preventing workers from accomplishing even simple tasks like sending an email. Thankfully, Pentagon information task forces not only rapidly solved many of the Defense Department’s infrastructure capacity problems but also penned tactics and techniques to contend with future challenges. Cyber infrastructure aside, US military units’ inexperience with teleworking resulted in confusion and hampered mission effectiveness during this period of orders to stay home. To address current shortcomings—and more importantly, to prepare for future disruptions to the normal way we conduct our work—military organizations must develop clear processes and guidance to harness the benefits of telework while guarding against its pitfalls.
Restrictive stay-at-home orders are not anomalies and are projected to occur in localized areas around the country as COVID-19 continues to spread. As governors modify these orders and military units cautiously return to their workplaces, now is the time to review lessons learned and solidify teleworking policies to prepare for this new normal of rolling lockdowns. More than simply minimizing disruption, military units can reap real benefits of robust teleworking guidance irrespective of future quarantine policies. Studies have shown that working from home, even on a part-time basis, increases both worker productivity and job satisfaction. Moreover, with a better work-life balance, companies that adopt a flexible work policy (e.g., partial and total telework policies) experience higher employee retention. Besides the benefit to employees—military and civilian—teleworking has a positive environmental impact by reducing energy use in offices and during commutes. Additionally, units facing infrastructure challenges like building renovations or office-space scarcity benefit from the “worksite flexibility” that teleworking provides. Of course, not all military office jobs can be accomplished from home. But, even some units whose members work in a classified environment rarely need constant access to classified material and could employ some kind of work-from-home policy.
Of the total force, DoD civilians are most likely to have a teleworking agreement due to the long-term positions civilians generally hold in a military unit. But like much of the civilian federal workforce, lack of telework guidance proves cumbersome. Telework.gov is an Office of Personnel Management website that generally caters to the civilian federal workforce, but military commander also can also utilize this as a tool to build a teleworking plan for their units. Few units have robust systems or procedures in place to support widespread and sustained teleworking for uniformed servicemembers—even though DoD guidance already allows servicemembers to telework. Understanding popular teleworking practices and mirroring the policies of corporations or even other federal agencies proves a good starting place for drafting guidance.
Important aspects of producing (or updating outdated) teleworking guidance involve examining the “products” the unit produces, current workplace processes, and personnel attributes of the unit:
- What office “products” (e.g., slide presentations, reports, performance/award packages) do members of the unit produce? Can members successfully produce these deliverables from an offsite location?
- Does the unit provide service to phone-in or walk-in customers? Can an on-call member at home service the phone customers? Can flexible scheduling allow for minimal manning in the office?
- Do in-person meetings really need to occur? Are informational-only meetings better served by an email or some other office communication system (like Zoom or Mattermost apps)? Are video or telephonic meetings a good substitute?
- Does the unit need to purchase laptops or CAC readers for members? Or do DoD enterprise solutions like virtual desktops alleviate the need for large hardware outlays?
- Do members of the unit require direct supervision? Are the unit members mature enough to accomplish work tasks with long-distance direction? Can all members telework or only certain ones?
- What kind of mentorship, development, or training do unit members need? Can units truly meet these objectives via the internet or will some in-person events be necessary?
Of course, teleworking more easily applies to office-intensive organizations like a manpower or finance unit than, say, a civil engineering or aircraft maintenance unit; but even those groups that require a physical workplace presence to accomplish their missions can find ways to apply teleworking procedures. And though the benefits of teleworking are numerous, commanders must also consider several issues with an isolated workforce while drafting guidance.
Many civilian firms still face difficulty implementing effective teleworking policies; military units will have to grapple with the same issues. First, military units should embrace the “unity of effort” principle and avoid duplicative efforts. Similarly staffed organizations at other locations or even disparate units at the same installation are likely crafting their own teleworking guidance. Commanders and staffs should make an effort to share lessons learned, coordinate communication technology to ensure future interoperability within the network (location- or function-based), and collaborate with higher headquarters for official direction. Second, units must train their members to effectively telework. Both supervisors and members must develop clear methods of open communication, understand feasible work output, learn how to foster a successful work-from-home environment, and comprehend best security practices regarding systems and information. Third, commanders and supervisors have an obligation to design processes to maintain human connection among unit members. Mentorship will evolve with the use of these new digital tools but keyboard connections are not enough to counter the social isolation many members may feel. Digital books clubs or social hours, off-duty personal phone calls, or mandatory office hours and all-calls help protect against the feeling of isolation experienced by many teleworking individuals. Only a well-developed strategy can enable units to avoid the hazards associated with teleworking and instead benefit from its implementation.
Rolling COVID-19 stay-at-home orders will likely persist throughout the next year or two. In fact, Google already extended its teleworking mandate until 2021. Now, as some workplace restrictions lift in the near term, each unit should treat this as an opportunity to revamp its teleworking policy and maintain it in a “warm” state so the next mandated event that forces teleworking upon it is, in effect, a non-event. The ability to rapidly employ a full teleworking posture is not just about adhering to COVID-19 restrictions, but is about being prepared for a range of contingencies, from installation flooding events to hurricanes. Teleworking is generally new to military units and requires proper planning. With solid teleworking guidance, units will be better postured to support both their members and their missions.
Maj. Mike Knapp is an experienced Air Force pilot with over 3000 hours flying the C-17. He currently flies the C-32 in the Washington, DC area in support of senior leaders. While not publishing commentaries, he writes dad jokes for his Instagram account.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Master Sgt. Mike Smith, US Air National Guard