Nearly 50% of Pentagon workers still teleworking

Safety protocols would allow up to 80% on-site, but there's no rush to recall remote employees.

When COVID-19 prompted "maximum telework" across the government this spring, the Pentagon -- which traditionally had more than 90% of its workforce on site -- quickly shifted to having just 17% of its roughly 24,000 employees in the building. While 5,300 people may sound like a lot, Department of Defense Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman said at a Sept. 15 FCW event on workforce issues, the Pentagon felt like "ghost town. … It was eerie."

Today, the on-site workforce hovers in the 12,000-14,000 range, Hershman said. The Pentagon is at Health Protection Condition Bravo, which would allow for an 80% occupancy rate, she said, but DOD executives are not pushing to accelerate employees' returns.

For starters, Hershman said, "it's not really up to us. We have to look at the conditions in Virginia and Maryland and D.C., and if any one of those starts to shift toward a spike in cases, we have to be mindful. … We're looking at school re-openings. We're constantly in touch with [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] about Metro and bus schedules. … There are a lot of moving parts that we have to take into consideration."

Additionally, she noted, nearly six months of experience has prompted leadership to re-think DOD's always-on-site culture. While classified work can't be taken home, Hershman said, "that mindset of, 'If you're not here, you're not working' -- boy, have we proved that not to be true."

Hershman also praised the safety precautions DOD employees have taken to allow the on-premise work that is taking place. When Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on an early-April Sunday that masks would now be required for all personnel, she noted, compliance in the Pentagon was roughly 60% by Monday and 100% by Tuesday. "Those are the kind of things … that make me very proud to be part of this organization," she said.

There is a strong desire to resume more face-to-face collaborative work, Hershman said, but DOD has no fixed target for an optimal mix of remote and on-site Pentagon employees. A set goal could prompt decisions that risk the health of personnel or their families, she said. "We're focused on how are we delivering on the mission -- and if there are things that are hampering that, how do we manage through [those challenges] to make sure that none of our outcomes are compromised."

This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site.