The Defense Department began pivoting to telework in March 2020, and by July, top officials were touting the massive effort as successful in “shattering the myth” that remote work was impossible for DOD.
But a recent DOD Office of Inspector General report that included a survey of more than 56,000 members of the DOD workforce highlighted some of the pain points in the transition, particularly in the early days. While a number of DOD components were ready to go to support maximum telework in March, others—including the Army, Navy, and the Air Force—needed more network capacity, infrastructure, communication tools or equipment for telework.
“Survey responses indicated significant issues with network accessibility and teleconferencing during the first 2 weeks of maximum telework,” the report reads. The Defense Finance Accounting Service and the Defense Health and Defense Contract Management agencies were also among those not fully prepared for telework. “For example, 38.9 percent of Navy respondents, 74.8 percent of DCMA respondents, and 22.4 percent of DHA respondents reported having some or many problems with network accessibility during the first 2 weeks of maximum telework.”
The problem is these agencies didn’t test the necessary capabilities, despite their own pandemic plans and the DOD Telework Policy, so they couldn’t identify and correct issues ahead of time, according to the report.
DOD OIG also found personnel turned to alternative solutions, like Zoom or personal devices, to get work done during the pandemic. Survey respondents most often said the reason they used unauthorized solutions for work during the pandemic is because DOD equipment and networks were too slow, and because their alternative solutions made collaboration easier.
“However, the use of personal devices can introduce vulnerabilities into the DOD Information Network,” the report reads. “Using unauthorized applications or sharing DOD information over improperly secured devices, even temporarily, increases the risk of exposing sensitive departmental information that could impact national security and DOD missions.”
Survey respondents had ideas for how to improve telework, suggesting DOD provide them with more equipment like computers and monitors, and make the network more accessible but also asking for more management support of telework.
One survey respondent management needs to “rid itself of their self-imposed psychological barriers” around telework and learn how to manage based on outcomes rather than who is coming into the office or not. Another called micromanagement “rampant.” On the other side of the coin, managers reported telework has made it harder to ensure employees are doing their jobs.
Respondents also said they need more IT support to teach them how to use collaboration tools. Still, DOD OIG found productivity did not suffer because of connectivity issues, and overall, 80.3% of respondents who provided written comments expressed positive sentiments about telework.
The survey also gave a peek into what DOD employees want the future of work to look like: for example, respondents said they want to be able to live anywhere and telework permanently.
“If I can’t trust an employee to get quality work done from offsite, then I likely cannot trust them to get quality work done while onsite,” one employee wrote. “It seems counter-intuitive to me, and contrary to supporting the need for the most talented and flexible workforce, to restrict telework merely because that is ‘how it’s always been done.’”
Based on its findings, DOD OIG recommended the assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and global security update DOD’s Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza to include the use of telework for essential and non-essential personnel and align the plan with the DOD Telework Policy as well as require DOD components to update their pandemic plans.
OIG also recommended that the undersecretaries of Defense for policy and personnel and readiness create procedures to verify DOD components perform the testing, training, and exercise requirements under the implementation plan and telework policy.