Coronavirus ‘Shattered the Myth’ that the Defense Workforce Can’t Telework, Official Says


Two Defense Department officials discussed lessons learned from the pandemic with an eye toward a post-coronavirus environment.

The Defense Department incorrectly assumed it was ready to deal with the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic and officials found themselves scrambling to learn about the specific challenges while also formulating plans for how to handle it, a top Pentagon official said. 

Lisa Hershman, the chief management officer for the Defense Department, spoke Monday on a webinar hosted by FedInsider about lessons learned from the pandemic. Her primary assessment concluded the Defense Department was underprepared, but that it had a lot of room to adapt its practices as the crisis unfolded.  

“We learned that number one: We can react swiftly and appropriately to put the employees’ best interests ahead of everything else as well as stay on mission for the important,” Hershman said.

The Pentagon is known for its ability to predict and plan, and in fact, the Defense Department warned of the potential for a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus as early as 2017, according to an internal document obtained by The Nation. The document warned not only of a pandemic but that the United States would likely face shortages of critical supplies including ventilators and face masks. 

Nonetheless, Hershman and Alan Shaffer, deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, emphasized that the pivot to mass telework has largely been a success. Shaffer also spoke on the webinar. 

“We really shattered the myth that you cannot do any work at DOD via a telework situation,” Hershman said.

At one point, only 6,000 people of the normal 23,000 were reporting in-person to the Pentagon each day. Shaffer said he was surprised by how effective the acquisitions process was even in a work from home environment, calling the workforce resilient and innovative.

Since the Defense Department moved to Phase Two of its reopening operation at the end of June, the number of people working in the Pentagon has climbed. Currently, up to 80% of Pentagon personnel are back in the building. 

But an increase in coronavirus cases has led some to question whether officials have moved to bring the workforce back to the office too quickly. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have spiked by 35% among Defense’s civilian workforce since the department moved to Phase Two. The increase is close to double the rate of increased cases in the United States overall. 

Recent surveys have also shown that many workers are interested in teleworking even beyond the end of the coronavirus pandemic. A Morning Consult poll found that three-quarters of workers want to telework at least part of the week, and a third said they want to work from home full time. 

The Defense Department was able to pivot to telework by recognizing that not all employees work with classified information and not all employees who work with classified information do so at all times. There are even some benefits to working from home in the form of fewer distractions and more efficient planning, Hershman said. Moving forward, Hershman said her team is collecting information from the workforce about the pros and cons of work from home in order to create an optimal situation for both the employee and the department. 

“We have started to re-look at what is the mix—if we look at certain positions and the position descriptions—how much of it is feasible to do in a telework situation,” Hershman said. 

Shaffer added that even without the pandemic, changes and reforms were on the way to the Defense Department. The acquisition process was already starting to undergo its biggest spate of reform since the 1970s. The pandemic may have simply accelerated these changes, Shaffer said. 

“I’m hoping that the pandemic will allow us to accelerate what was already ongoing,” Shaffer said.