Agility, Adaptability, Empathy, Productivity – and Hope

By Mel Kepler and Wyetta Morrow

It’s hard to overstate the effects that COVID-19 had on workers across the United States. While many office workers could work remotely, essential workers doing manual labor or providing face-to-face customer service did not have this option. Even at the height of the pandemic in May 2020, only 35 percent[1] of American employees worked remotely.

Government employees and contractors in the national security space were somewhere in between – unable to work remotely on classified information, but unable to occupy secure office spaces at full capacity. The result? Blue/Gold teaming, in which half the staff worked at home on alternate weeks and focused on unclassified tasks if possible, or shifts, in which normally 9-to-5 workers started at 4am or stayed until 10pm to allow for social distancing.

The virus has been a “Pandora’s Box” of sorts – opening up to release all kinds of things across our country, many of them deeply unpleasant. But as with any massive change, it hasn’t been all bad. Here are five previously iron-clad rules and beliefs that the COVID-19 pandemic killed off – and that we’re not sad to see go:

Remote work doesn’t work.

Few government employees – particularly in the national security space – teleworked before COVID. In fiscal year 2018, OPM reported that 42% of all federal employees were eligible for telework – but only 22% actually did work remotely, and one-third of that group did so one day per week or less. Even for telework-eligible employees, supervisors could often insist that their teams work together on-site to promote collaboration. And then: COVID.

Suddenly, many of us were working from home. (And, by the way, let’s give a hand to the IT professionals who made that abrupt shift possible!) We know now that remote work is feasible for some parts of our jobs, even if many tasks must be done on-site on secure networks. COVID made us learn how to make this shift.

Check your personal life at the door.

In the “Before Times,” doing something as simple as putting a picture of your family on your desk was a calculated risk – you had to consider the costs of potential negative perceptions. People who had to duck out early to pick up a child or care for a relative might fear being seen as insufficiently dedicated. But then: COVID.

Remote workers’ private lives went on display. Whether or not you’d ever mentioned your kids, they were now prancing through the background of your virtual meetings. Your Big Ten-themed den décor became a topic of conversation. And pets! Everyone’s dog has added its two cents to a virtual discussion and Zoom-bombing cats are so common they’ve become a meme.

The need to reduce office capacity meant our personal lives became relevant. When you need a team member to stay home for several months, heads tend to turn toward the guy with three kids in “virtual school” – even though such exile often forced parents to put their careers on hold. Further, many of us missed work to care for relatives who had caught COVID – or to mourn them.

I have to be able to see you to know you’re working.

Before COVID, “work” was a location, and team members all sat in the same space. Your worksite often dictated the work you did, regardless of how many other facilities had the same security and software. Part of this was supervisor preference – How can we be sure you’re working unless we can see you? COVID forced supervisors to learn how to manage people beyond their line of sight.

When an office moves to Blue/Gold teaming to reduce office density, a supervisor is only in the office at the same time as half the team members. Supervisors learned to reach out proactively to employees to check in on them, ensure their needs were being met, and check on their work. Employees, in turn, had to ask questions and seek feedback asynchronously, so that they could get answers in a timely way.

When we were not all sitting in the same cube farm, we learned new ways to collaborate and demonstrate accomplishments. We developed task trackers and filled up shared folders. Ultimately, no one had to wonder whether work is really getting done; having butts in office seats turned out to be less critical than generating outcomes. In fact, instead of assuming that remote employees were slacking off, offices began emphasizing wellness as the boundary between work and home life blurred and people worked at all hours. Are we working from home – or living at work?

People who leave don’t care about mission.

National security is a large community with a small-town feel. Sometimes that leads to animosity toward those who’ve moved away or “cashed in” (ha!) by moving to the private sector. Pre-COVID, it seemed like people who moved on stopped caring about the mission of protecting our nation.

With COVID changing how we interact with our colleagues, we saw how many people care deeply about mission. Some of us saw family and childcare providers adjust their own lives so we could report to work at secure sites. We watched people who lived and breathed mission reluctantly move cross-country, far from the SCIF, to care for ailing loved ones. These dynamics showed just how many people were devoted to this mission, whether it was their job or not.

Nothing ever changes in government.

We’ve all heard this one before. Government is like an aircraft carrier – it can’t turn on a dime. Things take time to change, and layers of approvals, reviews and revisions are just part of the process. Add in obstacles created by security requirements, and it can feel hard to move the needle.

COVID proved this was a fallacy. Organizations that struggled for years with virtual meetings deployed videoconferencing platforms literally overnight. Workplaces that had long opposed telework approved it in a flash. Even government agencies changed schedules, timekeeping practices, and safety policies in a matter of days.

None of these adjustments was a small effort. They each required coordination, signoffs, collaboration, agility, and constant adjustment – in short, every single thing that we’ve always said the government was terrible at. Well, guess what? When the will is there, and we’re all pointing in the same direction, we’re unstoppable. To quote Thomas Jefferson, although our government is slow to move, “once in motion, its momentum becomes irresistible.”

If you’re familiar with the Pandora myth, you know the story: Overcome with curiosity, she opened a box and released sickness, death, and other evils out into the world. You also know what remained inside: Hope.

That’s the final thing this COVID “Pandora’s Box” has given us: A renewed hope for the future of the national security workforce. We’re still here. We are, in fact, adaptable. And if we’ve managed to thrive in this environment, our hopes are high for what the future holds.


Mel Kepler is a coach and talent development specialist at LMI. Wyetta Morrow is the executive director for human resources at Raytheon Intelligence and Space. Both are members of the Intelligence Champions Council of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, which promotes government-industry collaboration on national security issues.


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