Disruptive by Design: Pros and Cons of Post-Pandemic Telework

September 1, 2021
By Jennifer A. Miller

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Defense Department entered something of a forced telework pilot situation, maximizing telework flexibility to minimize workforce health risks. Having experienced the hurdles, hiccups and Herculean adaptation across the department, I think the department did well. I also support the department implementing maximum telework policy even if COVID becomes less of a threat.

I recently contributed to a written product circulating among Army leaders concerning the Army’s telework situation pre- and post-pandemic. Therein multiple advantages existed among a few manageable disadvantages.

First, the majority of positions lend themselves to telework environments to some extent. Tasks still will be accomplished. In fact, multiple reports verify that before the one-year mark, many employees are more productive in telework environments. In one case, the Army Acquisition Service Center is embracing the “new normal [and] revisiting the telework policy now… as long as mission requirements are fully met… [which allows] flexibility for both supervisors and employees,” according to an Army article.

Second, telework offers recruiting and retention perks. Employees cite long commutes as one of the major issues affecting their work/life balance. Whether driving or using public transportation, fellow National Capital Region residents know those long commutes cost both money and time they’d rather spend on sleep, exercise, family, leisure activities, etc.

Numerous studies show happier and healthier employees make more productive employees. Intangible benefits are numerous: morale boosts, enhanced resiliency, employee empowerment and increased innovation, for example.

From an employer perspective, telework directly and indirectly reduces worker turnover and costs associated with recruitment and retention. Full-time telework employment can even eliminate permanent change of station payouts frequently costing thousands of dollars. Job attributes such as relocation, commuting area and transportation programs are often core reasons individuals apply for, accept, remain in and retire from positions. Telework opens opportunities for candidates and existing workforce members, but the Office of Personnel Management touts a broader reach to highly qualified candidates thanks to the flexibility it provides employees’ varying needs.

Furthermore, climate change is peripheral, but there are waves of news about this telework perk too. If more people telework, then fewer are on roadways to contribute to the carbon emission footprint.

Additionally, there is less waste of electricity since fewer office workers mean fewer office spaces for which to provide utilities. This aligns well with President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.

Granted, there also are disadvantages to teleworking. Literature and research support concerns about loneliness and the so-called Lonely Century. The lack of in-person interaction and oversight can contribute to feelings of loneliness, exclusion and professional growth limitations. I experienced an employment transition at the beginning of the Defense Department’s maximum telework practice. I consider myself fortunate to avoid feeling disadvantaged, but I also know of others’ journeys that weren’t as easy. Individuals, groups and organizations can overcome hurdles with sufficient communication using appropriate mediums, measuring individual performance and making reasonable accommodations.

Technical issues and cybersecurity threats offer more challenging obstacles. The devilish duo hinders productivity. The best approaches I’ve seen include proactive employees, sufficient quantities and quality of help desk personnel, adequately sustained infrastructure and up-to-date software to keep the network reliable and secure. Of course, there are disadvantages and ways to overcome them regardless of telework status.

It’s no wonder many industry juggernauts plan to sustain maximum telework post-pandemic. Advantages are numerous and seem to outweigh disadvantages. Telework is a very real and relevant benefit for recruitment and retention for appropriate positions. The pandemic provided a forced experiment for maximum telework, and we all learned a ton. It’s hard to believe I wasn’t more of a fan just two years ago. Now, the way I see it, if the demand and environment exist, let’s do it!

Jennifer Miller is a financial manager for the Defense Health Agency. She is a certified government financial manager, a certified defense financial manager with acquisition specialty and a member of the American Society of Military Comptroller’s Washington Chapter.

Opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Defense Department or any other U.S. government agency.

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