COVID-19 has changed how America works; literally how it goes to work. Home offices are being built across the nation in many career fields, unfortunately right next to noisy classrooms and tasty snacks. For all the pain the quarantine and distancing restrictions have put on us, some good is coming from this event. Fewer cars are on the roads, less petroleum is being used, the air is getting cleaner, and bosses are learning to lead their people from a distance.
That last point is where I want us to draw a huge lesson, so we can expand on a critical idea. For over two decades I worked in national security organizations that had valuable team-members scattered around the globe. Whether I was working on engineer tasks, defense cooperation, or intelligence work, I never had all the experts I needed to do my job in my immediate vicinity. I grew accustomed to not seeing my daily network of teammates in person. I used email, phone, and video teleconferencing to get my missions done.
If you are not comfortable leading this way or being on teams that function in this way, now is your time to get trained up on how it works and to get accustomed to the new future of working. Many workplaces will not go back to the status quo of having teams sitting together in cubicles every day when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. I hope the national security world has wise leaders that are planning to break the status quo during this crisis.
What can we do now to prepare ourselves for the new way of working?
National Security Lily Pads
Lesson one: Build more lily pads across the nation, especially in the states outside Washington, D.C. No sense herding everyone into the D.C. area every day to accomplish work they can do at home or at a lily pad in their neighborhood. When I say lily pad, I mean different work sites that have all the communication tools you need to stay completely engaged with your team. They might be at homes, local federal buildings in your county or town, or in new purposely built secure sites that will allow you to commute 5 minutes instead of 2 hours a day. The new and old facilities should be built so they can operate in a situation as severe and fluid as COVID-19.
Usually only a few senior leaders have secure communication suites in their homes; we need to change that model. Not everyone that holds a security clearance needs that home-based standard, but everyone needs to know where they can get to an alternate work site so they don’t need to travel to their main headquarters building. At a minimum this event should have taught every American how to set up a home office; that is a start. I am writing this from one right now – did you know there are tax reimbursements for them?
Provide the Right Technology
Lesson two: Developing secure distant work technology must be a national priority. We need the most state-of-the-art tools to ensure our national security teams are not constantly leaking critical information to our enemies. Whether we buy off the shelf or develop it in-house, it must be the best and easily upgradeable. We should be evaluating vulnerabilities and strengths in every system in use right now.
Train Your Teams
Lesson three: Train the national security teams across the country to learn to use the latest technology. The best outcome from COVID-19 for the national security field is that we all just found out our individual limitations. Every day citizens across the country are learning to use new technologies to work and educate their children. The national security world must leverage those lessons. Some of the same tools parents just set up for their children may work just like the ones we will use for secure communications.
Encourage Success with Limited Accountability
Lesson four: Get national security professionals comfortable working in small groups or one-person teams. If you haven’t operated on your own with little supervision, this was probably a shocking experience. For those familiar with this technique, it’s time to share best practices with your teammates. This is the rehearsal for the big game, and if you fail to practice you won’t be ready. Whether you keep a written schedule, have a whiteboard with your daily tasks, or set alarms on your phone or computer…you need a plan to stay on mission, and also to keep your teammates looped in.
Train Leaders to run geographically dispersed teams
Lesson five: Train our leaders on how to run a team that is geographically dispersed. This is not an easy leadership technique. Some leaders like to be able to see their people and talk to them in person whenever they like. Our senior leaders must take strong measures now to start forcing their subordinate leaders to let their people run off and work elsewhere. Yes, there will be shirking, but those people are already not pulling their weight sitting 10 feet away from you. Now they have no excuses when you fire them for not accomplishing their individual tasks at home.
Most of your people will thrive if they work from home 2-3 days a week or use a secure lily pad near their home. This is how the iGen workers headed your way will want to work anyways, and the millennials are tech savvy enough to take on this distance working plan. It is up to the baby boomers in the most senior positions to empower the Gen-X leaders and younger team-mates. Let them figure this out and they will surprise you.
Don’t waste a crisis
Imagine if a biological or chemical device went off in NYC, D.C., or San Francisco tomorrow. Would our media, national security, or internet sectors go down? If we learn the power of working at various lily pads now, and expand on the best parts of this way of working, they won’t need to.
We have to train the way we fight, to borrow an Army phrase. If we practice how to lead and be part of geographically distant teams now, we are better preparing for some of the worst possible scenarios. Being farther apart doesn’t weaken our national security teams; it strengthens them. Don’t let your team fall back on the status quo after COVID-19. Get started now on how to use this to our nation’s advantage.