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(The Washington Post)

National Security and Workplace Flexibility Aren't Incompatible After All

Photo by Goodboy Picture Company/Getty Images

by Lisa Davis

July 17, 2020

When I worked as a civilian at the Pentagon, managers sardonically joked that they supported flexible work arrangements—just as long as we sat at our desks from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in business attire.

For years, the U.S. Defense Department dismissed workplace flexibility as being incompatible with national security. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, flexibility became a matter of survival for all employers—including Defense. Quite suddenly, information technology and human resources departments have kept thousands of national security personnel on the job via home internet connections. Work has been accomplished around increased caregiving, distance learning, and other demands, and these needs are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The question now is whether the Defense Department will keep these adaptations or go back to its rigid ways.

If so, it'll come too late for me. Before my first child was born eight years ago, I requested a part-time work schedule to balance the new expectations placed on my family. The answer was a firm no. I soldiered on but eventually grew weary of missing day-care pickup times, hoarding sick days for when I needed to care for an ill child, and blurry lines to the start and end of each workday. After a few years, I asked again.

The Pentagon would not even consider a trial run of part-time employment, so I left a position I loved. My career in national security, managers warned me, was over; the field demanded more than a full-time commitment. I felt abandoned by my managers at a time when my career-home balance needed adjustment, a situation common to many mid-career professionals and new parents.

Today's workforce may not accept or remain in a position if it is not flexible.

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Today's workforce may not accept or remain in a position if it is not flexible. An EY study found that more than 70 percent of employees, regardless of generation (PDF), identified that working with colleagues who support flexible work is the most vital job attribute, second only to competitive pay and benefits. More than 70 percent of parents—and 65 percent of nonparents—said they'd leave a job based on the lack of workplace flexibility. EY also debunked the myth that millennials prefer start-up culture; rather, they are drawn to established, large corporations. A bureaucratic job with the government may not be such a big leap after all.

Defense is well aware (PDF) that it urgently needs to attract a new generation of skilled workers. In the Army civilian workforce, for instance, employees age 45 and older comprise 40 percent more of the workforce than for their private counterparts. As these workers retire, the Army may be challenged to fill mission critical occupations.

With more than 880,000 civilian employees (PDF)—more than 60,000 in the Washington, D.C. area alone—the Defense Department is the largest employer in the nation and in Washington, D.C.

Workplace flexibility could not only help the Pentagon attract and retain top talent, but it could also foster a more productive environment.

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Workplace flexibility could not only help the Pentagon attract and retain top talent, but it could also foster a more productive environment. According to research by Gallup, flexible employers see an improvement in productivity, performance, innovation, creativity, engagement, satisfaction, attitudes, and well-being, and a reduction in stress, absenteeism, burnout, and work-family conflict.

Creating these more engaged, high-performing employees may require a blend of many policies: working in the office or remotely, job sharing, working reduced or variable hours (without loss of benefits), and paid leave. Overarchingly, it requires trusting employees to know what adjustments are needed to fit their situations while supporting mission readiness.

Certainly, these policies adapt more easily to workers with unclassified desk jobs. But timeworn and anachronistic reasoning need not impede progressive changes to the nature of work. As this pandemic shows, most positions have at least some responsibilities that can be accomplished as easily sitting at the kitchen table at midnight as at a Pentagon desk from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Employees should not have to choose between working for their nation's security and caring for their families.

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Employees should not have to choose between working for their nation's security and caring for their families. When faced with the dilemma, I took a professional and financial risk, but I discovered a supportive employer that empowers me to determine where, when, and how much I work while still performing high-caliber, meaningful work in support of our nation.

Because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, the Pentagon quickly climbed a steep learning curve and overcame major hurdles—real and perceived—toward being a more adaptive workplace. Now the question is whether those changes can be made permanent. In the case of the Defense Department, what's good for its employees could also be good for national security.


Lisa Davis is an adjunct researcher at the RAND Corporation, where she works on defense planning, personnel, and workforce management topics.

This commentary originally appeared on The Washington Post on July 17, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.