• Carlen Capenos, director, Office of Small Business Programs at DISA, participates in a virtual event. DISA moved quickly into telework based on ongoing operations and preparations already in place when the pandemic struck. Credit: DISA
     Carlen Capenos, director, Office of Small Business Programs at DISA, participates in a virtual event. DISA moved quickly into telework based on ongoing operations and preparations already in place when the pandemic struck. Credit: DISA

DISA Changes its Course Mid-Pandemic

July 17, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The communications agency was perfectly placed to adapt to COVID-19.

In response to the pandemic, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has incorporated changes into its operations that are likely to remain in place after the virus has passed into memory. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the agency to adopt new procedures that have shown their worth for efficiency and employee quality of life.

Some of these measures, such as telework, already were in place to a limited degree. Others, such as virtual meetings, became the rule rather than the exception that they were originally. Other changes made of necessity have been adopted for regular use.

“We will never get back to the fall and winter of 2019 when it comes to how people work,” declares Lori Ramirez, director of workforce services development training at DISA.

Ramirez explains that DISA transitioned to maximum telework “almost overnight.” DISA’s information technology side worked extensively to increase network and mobile capabilities for the agency. “In pretty short order, we had to adjust to an environment that we never anticipated we would have to adjust to,” she said.

An around-the-clock command and control team was in place within 72 hours of the go signal, she relates. The personnel response team began onsite, but moved offsite after a short interval. Now, it comprises two-person teams on each shift collaborating from their homes to reach out to the entire workforce.

“We had to learn fast,” she relates.

Her department established personnel scenarios for military, civilian and contract workers. This was necessary for informing them when to quarantine or isolate while also reporting their status to the agency. Safety and security procedures were sharpened to ensure that no one reported to work sick. Cleaning contracts were revised to increase frequency and include disinfecting measures. All these measures required contact with remote work sites to maintain situational awareness, especially with regard to how their host organizations were supporting them with testing and treatment.

When the Secretary of Defense imposed stop movement orders, DISA had to create processes for policy exceptions with proper oversight. Ramirez relates that some of these were ready within hours, depending on how critical the need was. While operations have settled down with people becoming accustomed to these activities, the processes are still in place, she emphasizes.

The agency did make some course corrections. As it gathered reporting information for quarantine and isolation, it discovered that some field offices had different reporting requirements set by their hosts, such as the Pentagon. While DISA was going full speed ahead establishing its own processes, it also had to adjust to those of higher headquarters.

Ramirez relates that every part of DISA adjusted to the new normal. In many locations, teams were separated so if one team sickened, it wouldn’t infect the others. Her directorate separated where it issued CAC cards into two different centers, and the help desk worked away from its main center. Almost every part of DISA asked itself the question of whether it could still operate if a group fell ill to the virus, she says.

One advantage DISA had was its previous reliance on telework. The agency had incorporated regular telework into its routine, and it practiced emergency telework during bad weather events. So most of its people were ready when the pandemic struck.

Last fall, DISA conducted a continuity of operations exercise that pushed people into telework. The timing proved to be fortuitous, Ramirez notes. The idea was for people to thrive in telework, not just survive, and that thrust has continued. “We can see that telework is working, and we realize there are benefits to it,” she says. “I definitely see us relaxing, offering more telework—even when we’re out of the pandemic.”

The information systems agency has seen its own information technology improve, Ramirez adds. Experts already had been at work improving systems, but the feedback from internal users has helped their efforts.

Ramirez allows that the biggest challenge for her directorate has been balancing its normal workload with pandemic demands. People had to assume new responsibilities without time for preparation—“kind of dead sprint right from the start,” she analogizes. “People had to be really creative, because no one in our organization had ever done contact tracing before.”

That sprint has turned into a marathon because the pandemic is not likely to end anytime soon, so the directorate is looking at ways to create better balance. These changes required around-the-clock operations, and Ramirez lauds her personnel for volunteering to do difficult work for which they were relatively inexperienced.

“I took people out of [human resources], training, recruiting, logistics, warehouse, and said ‘Okay, this is your new job. The agency needs you.’ And they really adjusted,” she declares.

Within her directorate alone, more than 300 people had their roles adjusted or changed outright. These largely comprised people who had to create entirely new processes for change management or policies. One side effect was that the directorate had to ramp up its communications skills, especially with the public affairs team, because its new measures needed to be communicated to the worldwide workforce. The directorate also had to adjust to new reporting requirements, she relates.

“Everyone had to adjust their own personal safety procedures, figure out how to telework better and create physical distancing when they came to the workplace,” she says. “There pretty much wasn’t a part of my entire team that didn’t have to adjust in some way.”

Personnel at DISA are not static, and the agency constantly seeks to add to its workforce. Instead of being hamstrung by social distancing, the agency “hardly missed a beat” in overall recruiting and hiring, Ramirez claims. People were interviewed, hired and sworn in virtually on screen, she says. Even recruitment at schools continued apace. Last summer, about 40 people joined the agency as interns or summer hires. By early July 2020, that number had been surpassed and continues to rise. This represents a need both for DISA and for students to be engaged, she says. These students, who come from all over the United States with a wide variety of skills, also have the advantage of being well-learned in virtual collaboration.

Training also has gone virtual. Some outside courses were canceled because conversion to virtual instruction could not be easily achieved, but the training provided by DISA went completely virtual. Registration rates during the pandemic increased 66 percent, and this included students from around the world. This has eliminated the problem of low on-site attendance.

The agency has created some new courses and is holding quarterly supervisor symposia. The civilian workforce is learning more about leadership from expertise within the agency, Ramirez says. From telework leadership roundtables to individual mentoring, the response has been overwhelming. “We’ve actually done better in training as a result of going to a maximum telework environment,” she states.

Ramirez notes that DISA has three leadership tracks for different levels within the organization. These tracks always had a beginning and an end for their five-day sessions in which participants would meet as a group. But these beginning and end pieces in the new classes have been converted to virtual, matching the rest of the track.

DISA will be expanding discussion on this and other topics in a series of webinars beginning August 5. Go to https://www.workcast.com/register?cpak=3038965052109801 for more details and to register. Visit https://www.afcea.org/content/related-content/disa-2020 for more DISA content.

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