Shift of the workforce: NSWC Dahlgren Division considers new options to include remote work

by | May 29, 2021 | Military

From:  Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division

Teleworking in the federal government goes back at least 20 years, long before video conferencing, when the tools of the trade were dial-up modems and home fax machines. The policies that evolved into modern teleworking first originated as an environmentally-minded transportation plan. The notion at that time was to provide employees with the option of working from home one day per week to cut down on rush-hour traffic and attendant air pollution. Office of Personnel Management data from 2000, the first year that figures are available, recorded just 3% participation across the entire federal workforce.

After the terrorist attacks of 2001, teleworking rapidly evolved from smog prevention to continuity of government planning. Thousands of Department of Defense employees worked from home periodically during the reconstruction of the Pentagon. Across the country, other employees experimented with it, due to the general anxiety about more terrorist attacks on public buildings. By 2002, participation rates had doubled from 3 to 6%.

The numbers continued to steadily increase from there, reaching an average of 22% across the entire federal government by 2018. The actual numbers varied by organization, depending on the local culture and the nature of the work. The Navy was one of several departments that maintained on-site workplace traditions.  At Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), approximately 5% of employees participated in teleworking in 2019, according to human resources staff. Those who did participate were more likely to use it on a situational basis, scheduling around ad hoc conflicts like a doctor’s office appointment, instead of a recurring part of their weekly schedule.

All of that changed early in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 emerged as a public health emergency, and the Navy began operating on a policy of “maximum telework” to cut down on the risk of human-to-human infection. Official statistics for the year are not yet available, although unofficial surveys estimate that 70% of all federal employees were working from home during the COVID pandemic. Within NSWC Dahlgren Division, participation was even higher, with more than 90% of the 9,000-strong workforce working remotely at the peak of public quarantining.

Many of the Navy employees now show an eagerness to incorporate telework (on a parred down level) into the permanent way of doing business at Dahlgren. NSWCDD Acting Human Resources Director Natasha Holloway cited positive feedback across multiple levels of the organizational chart. Supervisors that expected a reduction in team productivity found creative ways to “keep the trains running on time,” and workers frequently mentioned the benefits of increased flexibility.

“It really does seem to be working for a lot of people,” said Holloway. “After the pandemic ends, we’re going to continue to embrace that increased level of flexibility. As long as the mission is still being accomplished and individual work responsibilities are met, people should continue to be able to ask for
telework days without any stigma.”

That employee feedback is beginning to shape workplace policy, according to Holloway. “It looks like 95%
of the workforce will be teleworking in some capacity after the pandemic, with some employees aiming for three or four days a week.” Holloway described those datapoints as “a huge shift,” and added that Dahlgren Division is studying several possible upsides that could reshape everything from the base’s real estate to hiring practices.

Hiring managers also anticipate that teleworking could be used to increase the pool of candidates for jobs that have traditionally been limited with on-site requirements. “We’re often looking for a specific skill that is difficult to hire for in the immediate geographic area,” said Holloway. “With more remote working, we may be able to find that perfect candidate in Montana or Maine.” Holloway added that “we’re seeing this across the Navy,” and the shift “makes us more competitive in terms of bringing in the next generation of employees.”

Higher participation in teleworking programs may also have dramatic implications for the use of space within office buildings. “Before the pandemic, you had to have a cube, seat, desk and phone line for every single employee,” said Holloway. “We just didn’t have the space, and it’s crazy not to be able to hire someone because you don’t have a desk for them.”

Some changes are already underway that will help use the existing space at Dahlgren Division to its  maximum capacity. Holloway outlined a pilot program that replaces assigned seating with a hoteling system, where employees reserve unoccupied desks on an ad hoc basis, depending on their on-site schedule. The goal is to chip away at some of the underutilized capacity that is inherent in any one desk-one employee workplace. A full-scale hoteling policy may also open the door for building renovations that could bring Dahlgren’s cubicle-based spaces more in line with the current preferences for open offices.

Last summer, the human resources team at NSWCDD began remote meetings with their counterparts in federal agencies and private companies that have successfully incorporated many of these changes. “PTO has been working on an enhanced telework basis for 25 years now,” said Holloway, in reference to the Patent and Trademark Office. In 2019, PTO reported that 31% of the total workforce uses telework at least once per month, with an additional 54% fully remote. “Their employees have come to expect that the workplace looks the way it does,” said Holloway. “You don’t have a spot assigned specifically to you with a family picture on the desk, instead you come in and reserve a seat for the day.”

Holloway said that conversations with the Patent Office and General Services Administration both referenced positive employee feedback, but also mentioned how ramping up telework can change the daily patterns of activity within an office, in ways that require an adjustment period that meets employees where they are. “This would be a long-term culture change and they were saying you will not get there overnight,” said Holloway. “It takes a little time to have that mental shift, and you want to help everyone get comfortable with it.”

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