Incoming: Will Telework Ever Be the Same?

May 1, 2020
By Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.)

High on the list of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is productivity, with multiple sectors of the economy having slowed. As industries and workers find their path forward, many are taking a renewed look at telework, and for good reason.

Some industries, such as hospitality or healthcare, require at least some face-to-face contact with customers, and they must take the necessary precautions to keep employees safe and functioning where possible. However, for other industries, this crisis presents an opportunity to rethink remote work and how well it can fulfill organizational goals and missions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 26 million Americans—16 percent of the working population—work remotely at least part of the time. This number will certainly increase as we manage through the pandemic, but what will happen after it subsides? Will organizations require employees to return to offices, or will there be a newfound acceptance of the telework model?

Given the high cost per square foot of office space, governments and corporations have long discussed the benefits of allowing employees to work from home or in some satellite or shared location. It can offer efficiencies through space consolidation, lower utility usage and increased productivity because staff tend to start their day earlier at home and have less of an opportunity for chit-chat.

Working remotely also means employees spend less time and money on commuting, which reduces traffic on the roads and lowers carbon emissions. There’s also the added benefit of providing employees with more flexibility to accommodate family responsibilities and a greater opportunity for long-term work-life balance.

To ensure that increased telework meets the expected outcomes during the next few months, it’s up to organizations to put the necessary pieces in place.

First comes infrastructure. Each remote worker needs a mobile computing device, secure tokens to access the virtual private network, appropriate bandwidth and collaboration tools such as Skype and Slack. Next comes training. Staff need to adjust to a remote environment and understand how to work with the available tools, so they can become productive quickly.

Expectations are another piece. Management must specify the objectives and communication methods for remote employees to establish benchmarks for behavior and performance metrics. Then comes compliance.There must be a process to ensure accountability on contracts that are “cost plus” or “time and material” as required in the federal acquisition regulation.

The fifth piece is organization. A department may benefit from a different reporting structure if there are multiple remote employees, as well as clusters of cleared teams not suitable for remote work.

Yet even with the foundation to support telework, there will always be concerns about an employee’s mental health due to social isolation. This ultimately could lead to a lack of motivation and decreased productivity—the exact opposite of one of the positive outcomes of remote work. There’s also the lost dynamic of in-person meetings and the helpful, serendipitous conversations that occur when colleagues are centrally located.

Employers can stay ahead of this unease by identifying the right level of oversight, such as periodic progress checks via telephone and video chat. They also can support team-building efforts such as online message boards and social gatherings after work hours, along with new hire introductions or retirements via video.

As the world endures and recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, federal agencies, military commands and contractors will evaluate the lessons learned from this time. Likely outcomes will show that more staff are able to work remotely than originally thought, employee retention has increased and more geographically distributed talent is hired.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta Inc.’s defense group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM). The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s, alone, and do not reflect the policies or positions of Perspecta Inc., its affiliates, or any other agency or organization.

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