The Defense Department’s abrupt and rocky shift to telework amid the coronavirus pandemic had an unexpected benefit: It did away with pointless meetings, office distractions and tiring commutes that sapped employees’ and troops’ productivity.
The Pentagon’s inspector general said in a report released Thursday that 47% of respondents to a survey on teleworking practices reported that their productivity increased while working from home during the pandemic. Another 41% felt they were about as productive while teleworking as they were in the office, and nearly 12% felt their productivity slipped.
The transition to telework last March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to erupt around the country, was vast — and the Pentagon was not prepared.
Of the more than 54,600 survey respondents who told the IG about their telework experience, 88% switched to full- or part-time telework between mid-March 2020 to last August. Nearly 12% continued to work on-site, usually because their work could not be done remotely or they were not eligible for telework, the IG said in the report, “Evaluation of Access to Department of Defense Information Technology and Communications During the Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic.”
But the transition to “maximum telework” was anything but smooth, the IG found. Survey respondents reported problems accessing their official computer networks and using voice and videoconference applications, and said they faced outdated and insufficient computers, cell phones and other equipment early on.
Some DoD employees resorted to unauthorized applications, such as the popular Zoom teleconferencing program, or their own personal laptops, printers or phones to get the job done, the IG found. But these stopgap measures created their own dangers, the IG said: Sharing defense information, even if only temporarily, over improperly secured devices increases the risk of sensitive information affecting national security being exposed.
The Pentagon eventually found its footing, the report said, and components improved their network capacity, communication tools and equipment to allow employees to do their work securely.
But the survey’s results on productivity show the potential benefits of increased telework, even when components are not forced to use it by a worldwide pandemic.
More than 45,500 survey respondents answered questions on productivity and submitted 18,350 comments further detailing their experiences.
Nearly 79% of those who felt that their productivity increased and left a comment said they experienced fewer distractions and interruptions while teleworking. More than a quarter of respondents also said teleworking led to the cancellation of unnecessary meetings and forced their organizations to adopt more efficient processes, such as moving certain tasks from paper to an electronic system.
More than 17% also appreciated the elimination of their commutes, and almost 12% said they had a better work-life balance while teleworking.
“I’ve been able to get more sleep since teleworking since I don’t have to commute to work,” one commenter said. “That extra sleep really has helped me stay more focused and productive at work while teleworking.”
Another respondent, who investigates felonies, was shocked by how much their organization was able to get done at home — and occasional visits to the office underscored the difference.
“I get more work done at home then [sic] I do at the office,” that respondent said in a comment on the survey. “I go into the office a couple times a week and I’m reminded by all the distractions.”
Even more than 83% of those who had problems connecting to their networks or voice or videoconferencing applications felt their productivity still improved.
Four in five respondents submitted overall positive comments about their telework experience; one in five felt their experience was negative.
Poor information technology support was the most frequently cited frustration among those who felt negatively about telework, with nearly 29% experiencing that problem. More than 19% of people with poor telework experiences reported increased workloads, and about 20% had problems with management.
“Micromanagement is rampant,” one commenter said.
One manager said they saw decreased productivity from employees with families. Many workers with children have struggled to juggle their work responsibilities with the needs of their family in the pandemic, as schools and daycares nationwide shuttered and education moved online, in many cases haltingly.
Another supervisor said overseeing poorly performing subordinates is difficult when working remotely.
“I have … government civilians that are not doing work while teleworking and there is no recourse during this time to ensure they stay busy,” that supervisor said. “If we were not in this environment, it would be easier to address. [But] this employee is basically doing no work and still getting paid. In my honest opinion, it is waste, fraud and abuse.”
After the pandemic is over, more than 37,000 respondents — about two-thirds of all who responded to the survey — said they would like to continue teleworking as part of their regular schedule.
One commenter estimated that not having to commute saved them 20 to 25 hours per week, which they spent getting more sleep, enjoying spare time and even getting more work done. Even if that commenter worked more than 50 hours a week, they said, they’d still end up ahead.
“Life is just better,” the commenter said.
— Stephen Losey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey. Related: Military ‘Spear Phishing’ Scams Surge as Pentagon Shifts to Telework