DAHLGREN, Va. –
The federal workplace has a longstanding reputation for accommodating flexible telework as a competitive perk, but only a portion of eligible employees previously took part because of in-person office norms. That pattern reversed last spring with the onset of a global pandemic, and a rapid switch to a policy of “maximum telework” across the entire federal government. While the specific threat posed by a novel strain of coronavirus caught the world by surprise, years of planning within the public sector for similar emergencies smoothed out what could have been a remote-working technology nightmare. With the nation’s vaccination efforts now aggressively ramping up, many employees are eager for the day when it will be safe to reunite with colleagues in their workplaces. But this is also a time for managers to access what worked within their own organizations, and take steps to build resilience if a future crisis were to occur.
New Teleworking White Paper
In a new white paper from Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) Lead Software Developer Clint Winfrey, he describes how his team navigated the rapid transition to maximum telework thanks to tools and structures put into place long before COVID-19.
Dahlgren Division’s national security mission would seem incompatible with working from the home office, but Winfrey’s team of software developers had already compartmentalized their own unclassified work products from sensitive components that are added at later stages. “Code often does not need to know any secrets,” Winfrey observes in the white paper. Thoughtful compartmentalization of larger projects “also simplifies the problem of eating an entire elephant.”
The white paper notes that the team benefited tremendously from previous investments in cloud-based tools that are not tied to physical workstations. Online project management technology, such as Jira, allows team members to view and track shared to-do lists while fostering good teamwork. For Winfrey’s team, this switch already made sense before the pandemic. In one example, he explains how cloud-based shared drives became essential tools for version control across multiple rounds of edits, and that this setup transitioned seamlessly when the team started working from home en masse.
Communications tools are a more nuanced subject. “Meetings guide the work that needs to be done,” the white paper observes, but “too many meetings prevent the work from being done.” For Winfrey’s team, balancing those realities means starting the day with quick all-team meetings that have an established hard stop. Within the 15-minute time box, team members can provide high-level visibility into their priorities and challenges, while detailed conversations are best pursued in follow on calls between the people who have direct insight. These one-on-one communications by phone or chat are strongly encouraged throughout the day, as a substitute for quick conversations that once took place between colleagues at deskside visits. Once a week, the team also crowdsources a written record of their progress, with short blurbs collected from each team member that go into a shared project tracker.
The Origins of Federal Teleworking
Federal policy that facilitated working from home dates back to at least the year 2000. “Telecommuting,” as it was then known, was conceived of as a way to cut down on smog-inducing rush hour traffic. Some forward-thinking employees were beginning to work from home one day per week, aided by the proliferation of affordable personal computers, and blazing fast internet connections that brought speeds in the megabit-per-second range. It remained a relatively niche practice, however, with just 3% of federal employees participating in remote work during the year 2000, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 quickly recast an environmental policy into a solution for national security. Many thousands of employees within the Department of Defense, for example, used telecommuting while emergency repair work shuttered portions of the Pentagon. Many other federal employees across the country focused attention on the policies because of the general concern for terrorist attacks on public buildings.
The threat of pandemic disease also figured into early telework policy. When avian influenza began to spread in humans during the mid-2000s, federal policy quickly recognized the value of remote work as a way to combat a serious outbreak in the U.S. In 2010, new legislation specifically required agencies to incorporate teleworking in their respective continuity of operations planning. Over the ensuing decade, federal employee participation in teleworking grew from 8% to more than 22%, before the pandemic.
How Planning Met Reality
When coronavirus reached American shores, the federal investment in teleworking technology and policies snapped into action on a scale never previously seen. In mid-March 2020, the Office of Personnel Management began the policy of “maximum telework” to minimize the risk of human-to-human infection. At the height of the public health restrictions, more than 90% of the 11,000-strong workforce at NSWCDD was working remotely. Some employees have since returned to the base with strict limits on group gatherings, masks and facility sanitation.
Winfrey’s team appeared more prepared than most. They had tools and processes that hypothetically would help the team pick up their work and immediately go all remote. They thought it would be a few weeks of distraction-free work. “At first you think you love the flexibility, until you realize you’re not seeing other people for extended periods of time,” Winfrey said. “I have my wife and my kids at home so I get that human interaction. Not everybody has family in the house or a roommate.”
When planning met reality in 2020, Winfrey found that the cloud-based tools and other preparations were prerequisites for success, but they did not guarantee it. Their resilience through the crisis was more a function of cultural values including compassionate leadership, flexibility and constant iterative improvement.
“One of the most important things, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic or not, is that your leadership cares about you,” Winfrey said. “I think that’s a big part of why we’re responding the way that we are. It comes down to good leadership.” Early on during the spring of 2020, that meant stepping up informal communications between managers and physically isolated employees. Later it evolved into all-team game nights, and other activities to help bolster the team’s cohesion.
“We’re still finding interesting ways to provide that group dynamic,” Winfrey said. “COVID-19 has been chaos for the world. But crisis brings growth, and the ways that we responding to it are better than they were before. In some ways we’re closer as a team now. I think we’ll find ways to keep up that level of communication and looking out for each other. By no means are we done, it’s an evolving process.”