Peace Time: How To Empty The Pentagon

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April 29, 2021: From March 2020 and April 2020 over a third of the 700,000 civilian employees of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) worked from home via computer networks (telework) because of covid19 lockdowns. Many could not telework because their jobs required a physical presence. This applied to those who did equipment operation or maintenance, most forms of medical work, physical security and dealing with highly classified matters. Headquarters were prime sources of teleworkers and the best example of that is the Pentagon in Washington DC, where 24,000 people work, most of them civilians. During the shutdown over 80 percent of Pentagon personnel worked from home, including many military personnel performing desk-bound jobs.

For decades telework has been promoted as more efficient and popular for most office-bound employees. Management, especially in DoD, resisted making such a move to telework, even on an experimental basis. Covid19 changed that and forced a large-scale teleworking experiment to take place. A year after the lockdown, the DoD Inspector General released the results of a recent survey of DoD civilians on their lockdown experience. Over 56,000 DoD civilians responded to the survey and about 12 percent reported they were ineligible for telework, but the rest spent all or much of 2020 working from home via the DoD computer network, long the largest in the world and more capable than most. The experience of those still working at their DoD workplace was positive as well because more of the population teleworking meant those who still had to commute did so in record time because of the reduced traffic. They found their on-site work easier to handle in terms of stress and getting more done. Those who continued to work in the Pentagon felt like the place was empty, because 83 percent of the people normally there were teleworking and there were far fewer workers. All those lockdowns meant fewer places to eat or get a drink after work. That was not noted as a major problem.

The responses from those teleworking was overwhelmingly positive. Those in charge of security knew there was more risk of classified information being exposed but it is not yet clear how much damage was done during the lockdown. Supervisors reported it more difficult to deal with the small percentage of employees who were troublesome in person and more difficult to manage when teleworking. While some teleworkers reported annoying and sometimes intrusive micromanagement from management, most supervisors reported increased productivity in terms of getting work done faster and more accurately. Seventy-nine percent of teleworking personnel likewise reported they did indeed get more work done and their supervisors added that morale was better. Many workers and supervisors spent some time at their Pentagon workplaces, usually in rotation and said that this confirmed the productive and less stressful environment at home, where teleworkers often spent more time on the job. Early on a large minority of teleworkers reported problems using the DoD network, which was not designed for such a heavier workload. But networks are designed to quickly adapt and the DoD network personnel were able to deal with the problems quickly.

Teleworkers with kids stuck at home because of the lockdown reported problems working out a balance between managing the children and getting work done. Most parents found ways to make it work, especially if both parents were teleworking. Because of the lack of meetings, chatting with other employees and other workplace disruptions, plus the lack of a commute or work-related travel, teleworkers found they had a lot more time to just get the job done. Supervisors reported a small percentage of teleworkers were turning in poor work or not much of it all. As a result, supervisors had to improvise and develop new management techniques. For about a fifth of teleworkers this meant more micromanagement and hassles from supervisors. For nearly all teleworkers these annoyances did not outweigh the advantages of being away from the workplace.

Overall, the unanticipated teleworking experiment worked and most teleworkers expressed interest in spending more or even most of their time teleworking. Management has to figure out how to handle the increased security risks and determine which types of work are more effectively carried out remotely. Many commercial firms had the same experience as the DoD and the advantages of teleworking have finally been proven.

Meanwhile most of the 1.2 million uniformed personnel remained in barracks and bases, but because the uniformed personnel are younger than civilian employees and have to meet higher health standards than DoD civilians, they had a much lower covid19 infection and death rate than the average civilian.

 


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