Air Force Orders ‘Seismic Shift’ for Pentagon Staff Telework (1)

  • Remote work now default for airmen, civilians at headquarters
  • Contractors are also eligible if work agreements permit

(Updates with Air Force comment in seventh paragraph.)

The Air Force made a “seismic shift” this week to adopt telework formally as the default for its Pentagon headquarters staff including service members, civilians, and contractors wherever possible—even after the pandemic.

Secretary Barbara Barrett ordered supervisors in the National Capitol Region to offer full-time, part-time, or situational remote work to personnel, and to create programs to ensure work performance, work-life balance, and reduced costs.

The headquarters order, dated Sept. 28, affects personnel who work in the Pentagon and surrounding facilities and comes after the military massively expanded communications networks over the past six months during the coronavirus outbreak. Officials have touted the effectiveness of telework and as many as 1 million Defense Department personnel were working remotely daily in June.

“This document represents a seismic shift from the staff’s approach to and acceptance of telework as recently as early 2020, and actively seeks to shift staff culture to embrace telework,” according to the secretary’s order. The document, called Headquarters Operating Instruction 36-16, was obtained by Bloomberg Government.

Photo: Tech. Sgt. Jim Araos/U.S. Air Force via DVIDS
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kaitlyn Schramek, 39th Communications Squadron voice systems technician, troubleshoots a voice communicator app, May 5, 2020, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Voice systems technicians ensure voice communications are accessible at work and from home. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jim Araos)

The order says “fully realizing its potential benefits” will require widespread commitment in the service and a plan called the Telework Readiness Program to carry out the shift. The program “is intended to enable—to the extent compatible with mission requirements—adoption of telework as the staff’s default work mode.”

Local military commanders and department supervisors, however, will still have the power to exempt employees from working remotely. Contractors in the region are eligible unless their work agreements specifically require them to report to a government facility.

The Air Force hopes to reap savings, Anthony Reardon, administrative assistant to the Air Force secretary, said in a statement. “The new operating instruction seeks to institutionalize these efficiencies and ultimately capitalize on decreased costs to the taxpayer of facility space,” he said.

New Rules

Full-time teleworkers will be required to report to their regular work sites at least twice per pay period, unless they are located too far away, and should be given shared desks to use during the visits. Personnel are allowed to work remotely overseas under certain circumstances.

Remote workers will also receive three hours of excused absences each week for “health, wellness, physical, or educational activities.” They should “not allow dependent care responsibilities to interfere with work responsibilities.”

Numerous Pentagon leaders have touted the success and potential of telework. For example, the Navy has said the money saved on office space could be plowed into other needs, such as piers and runways. The Defense Innovation Board, in a report this month, urged the military to expand telework to attract talented workers.

Concerns over workforce isolation and the loss of in-person mentoring have also cropped up, Tom Muir, the director of the Washington Headquarters Services, said last week. His office oversees Defense Department workforce planning.

Telework Isolation Seen as Risk to Mentoring Pentagon Workers

The Pentagon spent $324 million of pandemic stimulus funds earlier this year to expand teleworking with new communications systems and devices, and has signaled that many remote workers may not return to the office.

The number of Defense Department personnel working remotely has been gradually falling since the highs around June, Dana Deasy, the Pentagon chief information officer, said on Wednesday. About 50% of the Pentagon building’s 24,000 employees are back to working in the office.

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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