In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, eight of the 12 employees in my office transitioned to teleworking. The four remaining in the building were essential to daily operations. Everyone else could accomplish their tasks away from the building with high-speed internet and a phone.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to telework by many employees will have lasting effects on the workforce. Employees found new freedom in working from anywhere, and many of them will not want to return to a fixed office setting.
The Army must adjust its policies now to accommodate this revolution in workforce affairs.
In terms of military capabilities, a revolution in military affairs is a significant change in organization, training or equipping that reshapes the conduct of war. The armies that adapt to the changes are victorious over those that fail to adapt. The requirement for employees to telework during the 2020 pandemic created an opportunity to work from anywhere. Leaders and organizations must prepare now to accommodate the changes in the workforce.
When employees were reintegrated into my office, two of eight teleworking employees decided not to return to the building. An additional employee said he would come back for a while but planned on retiring in the next year. This means 38% of teleworking employees decided that returning to the office setting was not in their best interest.
The desire to remain teleworking is not universal. During reintegration, two employees volunteered to return early because they could not wait to be back in the building. Their need for face-to-face interaction overrode the benefits of working from anywhere.
The Army cannot make blanket policies regarding all civilian employees, but must create policies that allow for the greatest amount of flexibility.
Changes in Perspective
When the Army directed its commands to begin teleworking, there were mixed feelings among employees. Some people thought their functions were essential based on accessing classified information only available in the office. Teleworking employees started off feeling undervalued and irrelevant because they were not considered essential. However, as they transitioned to teleworking, they became more efficient and focused on finding viable solutions to the problems we faced. The result was their work had a greater impact on our organization and our higher headquarters.
Teleworking allowed employees to work from anywhere, and the result was a reduction in stress, decreased financial obligations and an increase in work-life balance. When asked why they were not returning to the office when it was safe to do so, the reason they gave was they now understood what life could be with telework, and they were not willing to give it up.
The most significant obstacle most leaders of teleworking employees will face is communication. Not seeing an employee every day requires leaders to change their behavior and adapt to this new environment. Leader communication builds trust, reinforces organizational culture and provides guidance. In a workforce split between in-office employees and teleworkers, it is easy for leaders to focus their efforts on employees in the building and neglect those who are not. Doing so will negatively impact workforce productivity.
The second obstacle to teleworking is managing productivity. Organizations hire employees for a purpose and pay them to accomplish it. Leaders are responsible for managing their employees and ensuring they complete their tasks on time. In an office environment, it is easy to follow up or check on the status of a project, but this is more difficult with remote workers. Leaders must establish procedures to maintain the productivity of their workforce.
The first thing the Army must do to accommodate telework is update position descriptions. In most Army organizations, position descriptions provide a broad overview of job requirements, but are not specific. An employee who is going to work remotely must have a clear understanding of requirements. This will provide them the freedom to manage their time and produce quality products on time.
The position description cannot describe every product or action an employee can expect to perform. In these instances, the supervisor must provide clear guidance and manage the expectations of both the employee and the organization. In the work-from-anywhere environment, leaders have the added requirement to manage across different time zones. A clear understanding of the requirements and the timeline for submitting completed work is essential to an effective distributed workforce.
Time, however, is not the most effective metric for determining productivity. Supervising Army civilians is rewarding, but navigating the biweekly time card approval process is painful. The Army must select a better metric for determining employee productivity. Focusing on product creation instead of time does two things: For the employee, it rewards those who are efficient and allows them to manage their time. For those who are less efficient, it does not penalize the organization for their inefficiency. If they need to work longer hours to accomplish their requirements, there is no added hourly cost for their labor.
Project-based payment allows an organization to distribute work equitably among employees without being penalized for inefficient ones. It also allows employees to control when they work on projects. One of the most significant complaints against teleworking is the distractions at home and the inefficient workspace. In a project-based payment system, it does not matter the type of workspace or the distractions as long as the employee makes deadlines.
Calculating Locality Pay
One benefit for Army civilians is locality pay. If the Army allows civilians to work from anywhere, it must determine how it will calculate locality pay. There are potentially three options. The first is to continue the current policy and use the employee’s current location. This could increase the cost because of the option to live in higher-cost areas. The second option is to pay the employee based on the location of their organization. This calculation would allow the Army to predict the cost of employees and benefit those who choose to live in lower-cost areas. The final option is to create a different telework pay scale. It would pay a flat rate for anyone teleworking, regardless of location.
When it comes to accessing classified data, the Army requires a policy to accommodate the workforce. It can restrict access to currently approved facilities and prevent employees who access classified systems from teleworking or allow them to access the systems at home. There is a risk in increasing the number of places that people can access these systems, but the Army must determine whether the benefit of keeping high-performing civilian employees is worth the risk.
Meanwhile, in most places, the Army cannot realize facility savings from increased teleworkers. However, in the national capital region, reducing the number of in-office employees could reduce the requirement for leased office space. The Army should evaluate the potential cost savings as a metric for determining how many people to transition to telework.
Allowing employees to telework with the appropriate leadership oversight and clearly defined requirements will enhance their productivity. Decreasing the costs of fixed facilities to accommodate workers, coupled with teleworkers completing their required tasks on time, will benefit both the organization and the employee.
It is up to leaders at all levels to prepare their organizations for telework by updating position descriptions, identifying productivity metrics and creating new pay policies that allow maximum workforce flexibility.
Once the workforce establishes its telework rhythm, the leader must communicate effectively with each employee to maintain the synergy within the organization.
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Lt. Col. (P) C.J. Phillips is an Army strategist with 23 years of government service. He is the academic year 2022 U.S. Army War College fellow at the McConnell Center, University of Louisville, Kentucky, and is a doctor of strategic leadership student at Regent University, Virginia.