Staff change: NSWC Dahlgren division considers new options to include remote working

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From: Naval Surface Warfare Center Division Dahlgren

Teleworking in the federal government dates 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 took the form of an environmentally conscious transportation plan. The idea at the time was to give employees the option of working from home one day a week to reduce rush hour traffic and the resulting air pollution. Office of Personnel Management data for 2000, the first year for which figures are available, only recorded a 3% participation in the overall federal workforce.

After the terrorist attacks of 2001, telework quickly evolved from smog prevention to government planning continuity. Thousands of Department of Defense employees worked from home periodically during the reconstruction of the Pentagon. Across the country, other employees have been experimenting with it, amid widespread concern over the increase in terrorist attacks on public buildings. By 2002, participation rates had doubled from 3% to 6%.

The numbers continued to rise steadily from there, reaching an average of 22% across the federal government in 2018. Actual numbers varied by organization, local culture and the nature of the work. The Navy was one of the many departments that kept the traditions of the workplace in place. At Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), about 5% of employees were teleworked in 2019, according to human resources staff. Those who participated were more likely to use it on a situational basis, arranging one-off conflicts like a doctor’s appointment, instead of a recurring part of their weekly schedule.

All of that changed in early spring 2020, when COVID-19 became a public health emergency, and the Navy began implementing a “maximum telework” policy to reduce 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 worked from home during the COVID pandemic. Within the NSWC Dahlgren division, attendance was even higher, with more than 90% of the 9,000 employees working remotely at the height of the public quarantine.

Many Navy employees are now showing a willingness to integrate teleworking (at a reduced level) into the permanent way of doing business at Dahlgren. Natasha Holloway, Acting Director of Human Resources for NSWCDD, cited positive comments at several levels of the organization chart. Supervisors who expected reduced team productivity found creative ways to “keep trains on time,” and workers frequently mentioned the benefits of increased flexibility.

“It really seems to be working for a lot of people,” Holloway said. “After the pandemic is over, we will continue to embrace this increased level of flexibility. As long as the mission is accomplished and individual job responsibilities are met, people should continue to be able to ask
days of telecommuting without any stigma.

This employee feedback is starting to shape workplace policy, according to Holloway. “It seems that 95%
of the workforce will telecommute to some extent after the pandemic, with some employees targeting three or four days a week. Holloway described these data points as “a huge change” and added that the Dahlgren division is looking at several possible benefits that could reshape everything from grassroots real estate to hiring practices.

Hiring managers also predict that telecommuting could be used to increase the pool of candidates for traditionally limited jobs with on-site requirements. “We are often looking for a specific skill that is difficult to hire in the immediate geographic area,” Holloway said. “With more remote work, we may be able to find the perfect candidate in Montana or Maine. Holloway added that “we are seeing this across the Navy” and the change “is making us more competitive in terms of recruiting the next generation of employees.”

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

Some changes are already underway that will allow the existing space of the Dahlgren division to be used to its maximum capacity. Holloway described a pilot program that replaces assigned seats with a hotel system, where employees reserve unoccupied desks on an ad hoc basis, based on their on-site schedule. The goal is to reduce some of the underutilized capacity inherent in any workplace to a single desk. A large-scale hotel policy may also open the door for building renovations that could further align Dahlgren’s cabin-based spaces with current preferences for open-plan offices.

Last summer, the human resources team at NSWCDD began remote meetings with counterparts in federal agencies and private companies who have successfully incorporated many of these changes. “PTO has been working on an improved telecommuting basis for 25 years now,” Holloway said, referring to the Patent and Trademark Office. In 2019, PTO reported that 31% of the total workforce telecommuted at least once a month, with an additional 54% being entirely remote. “Their employees expect the workplace to look like it is,” Holloway said. “You don’t have a place specifically assigned to you with a family photo on the desk, instead you come in and book a place for the day. “

Holloway said conversations with the Patent Office and General Service Administration both referred to positive employee feedback, but also mentioned how the acceleration of teleworking can alter the daily patterns of activity within the company. ‘an office, in a way that requires an adjustment period that meets employees where they are. “It would be a long term culture change and they were saying you won’t get it overnight,” Holloway said. “It takes a little while to have this mental shift, and you want to help everyone feel comfortable with it.”



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