Let Them Work From Home

DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia

The coronavirus is the push the Pentagon needs to become a 21st century workplace.

Earlier this week Defense One reported that senior military service branch representatives requested a one-month delay in the submission of their annual budgets, arguing that it was endangering the workforce to require that they come in to the Pentagon amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist rejected their request and asked the services to come up with a different plan for formulating next year’s budget, a move that only keeps workers at their desks even longer.

Why can’t this work be done remotely? Why does anyone need to go to the Pentagon to work with unclassified data in this age of readily available cloud storage and commercially available video conferencing? Can’t the vast majority of this work be done from home, without endangering anyone?

The answer is that building annual budgets, the vast majority of which are unclassified, absolutely could be done remotely, along with much of the Defense Department’s other routine work. The problem is that DOD has significant cultural barriers to remote work, and as a result has not invested in the technology needed to make it possible.

It will surprise no one that DOD is an old-school workplace. It is an environment where actual face time (not virtual FaceTime) matters, and people are rewarded for being the first at their desks in the morning and the last out at night, regardless of how productively they are using the intervening hours. If you’re not physically present in the office, the assumption is that you’re not doing work. Breaking down these cultural barriers to remote work is essential before moving on to step two: updating DOD’s office information technology to the basic level extant in the private sector.

Related: Military Leaders Ask to Delay Budget Planning To Focus on Coronavirus, Let Staff Stay Home
Related: Coronavirus Is Rising Around US Military, Defense Infrastructure, Analysis Shows

As anyone who has worked for the Defense Department will tell you, acquiring basic office technology lags years behind the refresh rates that the private sector enjoys. We were still using classic Blackberries when the iPhone 6 came out. Even standard updates to Microsoft Windows lagged years behind their releases.

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, antiquated office IT systems were merely annoying. Now this state of affairs has caused work to grind to a halt across the department, forcing terrible choices between delaying important (but not urgent) work or placing service members and DOD civilians at risk by having them come into the office when they should be practicing social distancing by staying at home. DOD must start sourcing and certifying commercially available video conferencing and cloud storage solutions now, and must accept some risk to implement them quickly in support of unclassified work. While I fully appreciate the need for security above and beyond what most companies use, the truth is that some of DOD’s work is extremely mundane, and the department’s risk tolerance should reflect this reality when it comes to some systems and their usage.

The irony here is that the military has demonstrated some incredible feats of “remote work” in operational contexts. The Air Force recently moved the command center for its Middle East air operations from Qatar to South Carolina.

If the Air Force can run wars remotely, the Pentagon can send personnel home to work on the budget and more mundane tasks. Rather than accepting delays in essential but not urgent tasks (like building annual budgets), the department needs to ensure that it can weather shocks like COVID-19 by enabling service members and civilians who can do their jobs remotely to do so. 

The benefits of breaking these cultural barriers and adopting the technology needed to support remote work would extend far beyond the current crisis. They are relevant in any number of continuity of operations and continuity of government crisis scenarios. And they make for a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce, generally. The flexibility to do meaningful remote work when necessary has been a significant improvement to my quality of life since leaving government. There is no reason why many service members and civilians cannot enjoy the same benefit, once life returns to normal. 

Susanna V. Blume is the director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. Formerly she served as deputy chief of staff for programs and plans to the deputy secretary of defense.

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