Was DOD ready for telework in 2020?
Slow networks, a lack of management buy-in and the need for more government equipment all affected how Defense Department civilians transitioned to telework at the start of the pandemic, new reports from DOD's inspector general found.
For many, slow networks and the need for more government-furnished equipment and applications were problems.
The reports, dated Aug. 13 and Aug. 12, go into the experiences of employees at the Missile Defense Agency and the Defense Logistics Agency, respectively. The report are offshoots of a larger evaluation and August 2020 survey of access to information technology and communication during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic released in March 2021.
The beginning of the pandemic forced many DOD personnel into full-or part-time telework, it found. 88.2% of survey respondents went virtual at least some of the time between March 15 and Aug. 26, 2020.
The shift was initially hampered by problems with employee access to DOD component networks and voice and video conferencing tools, in addition to gaps in government-furnished equipment. These problems lessened over time "as the DOD increased its network availability and capacity, added voice and video conferencing applications and purchased and distributed computer and communications equipment," the report says.
At the root of some of these challenges was the fact that some DoD components didn't fully test if their IT systems would hold up with government-wide telework, and hadn't done telework exercises with their workforce before March 2020 like instructed in the DoD Implementation Plan and Telework Policy. This left some components "unprepared," the report said.
The IG recommended updating the department's Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza, aligning that with the agency's teleworking policy, and requiring components to update their own plans.
MDA and DLA also saw big shifts to telework in early 2020. At the MDA, 98.2% of survey respondents moved to either full or part-time telework last year. The DLA workforce moved from 78.2% teleworking either full- or part-time before the pandemic to 88.7% after the crisis started.
Overall, feds largely said that they were either more productive or at least as productive as they were before.
Almost half of MLA survey participants – 45.9% – said that they were more productive during max telework. Out of the other half, 37.8% said they productivity didn't change, and 16.3% said it decreased.
That's similar to responses from DLA feds, where 50.7% said their productivity increased; 43.1%, remained the same; and 6.2%, decreased.
The most frequently cited problems by MDA feds were intermittent connectivity and slow networking speeds, but employees said these got better over time.
Slow networks were also the most-cited problem by DMA employees. Reports of slow speeds often or very often went down 4.9% over the five months.
At MDA, some employees also needed more equipment and applications when they first started teleworking: many referenced headsets, government-furnished monitors and teleconferencing applications. In fact, when asked what improvements where needed, the most referenced answer was more government-furnished equipment, followed by management buy-in.
Support from management also came in second at the DLA, although the most common answer to the question of what improvements were needed for successful telework as no improvements needed. Those that did say they needed more equipment when the pandemic started referenced government monitors and printers the most.
The reports come as the federal government continues to monitor growing coronavirus cases across the nation and the impact on the government's workforce and operations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is looking to mandate vaccinations for civilian, military and contractor employees by mid-September, or when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues full approval for the COVID-19 vaccines, which are currently available under emergency use authorizations.
Feds at both components said rated shorter or less commuting and a better home-life balance as positives of teleworking more often, and the most common answer at both DOD components to the question of what parts of teleworking they want to continue was regular telework in their schedule.