Work-life balance has been a key national security topic since the start of the pandemic in 2020. It’s often been a discussion topic for women, but COVID-19 put it under the microscope, showcasing how far the SCIF life can move forward in a short period of time. At the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) fifth annual symposium, The New IC: Empowering Women and Engaging Men, panelists familiar with the challenges of SCIF life talked to what is needed to change the future culture.

Technology Could Change the SCIF LIfe

All agreed that there were key pieces of technology that make life a lot easier – from a Fitbit to an iPhone to a laptop, it’s challenging to work every day in a world that no one else lives in. While each panelist offered their own strategies, all agreed that SCIF life going forward is begging for a change. The reality is that it’s entirely possible.

Zachary Tyson Brown, intelligence researcher in U.S. national security said, “We have the capability with trusted workforce” to really make life easier for staff – and we should be leveraging that.” It’s about changing the status quo of how we function – even understanding that the next generation has different expectations for communication and accessibility. If we want to recruit Gen Z, we may find them reluctant to only responding via email or phone call. But even deeper than the recruiting problem is the retention problem. Regular life functions – school interactions for employees with children or tele-health visits are harder to manage for the SCIF employee – and actually more frequent in a post-pandemic world.

Stressors in the SCIF LIfe

Janaki Kates, national security consultant, shared that while it can be challenging to deal with the stress with the people outside of your work community, one strategy is to focus on sharing (or venting) about personalities and not about things of actual substance.

“I love what we get to do, so it’s worth it. But you do get to leave it behind,” shared Maria Demaree from Lockheed Martin. For some creating balance is about forming clear boundaries between work and personal life. Brown shared that the challenge for the analyst-minded employee is that when the down time comes, those are often when the key insights and ideas happen – but you can’t write it down.

All agreed that a lot of the stressors on the SCIF life depend on the team dynamic, with some becoming like a family. Depending on the office, that can be good or bad, but with such a focus on a shared mission in the IC, it does tend to be unifying.

A New SCIF Retains Talent

DCSA Chief of Staff, Ellen Ardrey explained that NGA made progress because they set a “mission demanding change to the traditional way of looking at SCIF life.” And that has to be the future – especially when recruiting more diverse candidates. Accessibility needs more options to function within the SCIF. We can’t ask people to leave all their technology they need to function in life in a lockbox outside the SCIF. Demaree noted that when it comes to making the SCIF the workplace of the digitally-born future, that we have to “make it worth the commute for them to stay there.” We can win new recruits with a mission, but it’s not enough to make them stick around.

Kates shared, “When you demand nine hours a day in a SCIF, you can’t retain people.” She explained that it’s entirely possible to do four hours a day from the SCIF and the rest from home, and we know this because private sector is doing it. For many, the pandemic has brought about many changes, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“We have world class people, so we need world class buildings and technology,” emphasized Brown. Nothing is more discouraging for a new recruit to get excited for the mission and show up to a tired building from decades ago that houses out-of-date technology that often doesn’t work.

It takes a lot to bring about change. The Hon. Ellen McCarthy, president of Truth in Media Cooperative shared that we “need to have a commitment from believers who know that we can’t go backwards on this issue.” Senior leaders need to demand change. It’s also about rewarding what’s being implemented correctly.

The Role of the Private Sector

Private sector plays an important role in bringing about change. When you can show the art of the possible, it can bring the overall workforce one step closer to a shift in thinking. Ardrey pointed out that no one should stop asking leaders to make changes. You may have asked before, but times are different, so ask again.

Kates shared that for her, she had to leave the federal government in order to be a driver pushing change into government from another angle. If the federal government isn’t seeking out cutting-edge technology or doesn’t know where to find it, the public-private partnership can go a long way in pushing in those changes.

McCarthy noted that when you don’t have to report every policy adjustment to Congress, it’s possible to make changes at a faster rate.

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.