CORPS AT WORK: Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has kept pace with its mission. In February, the Corps worked with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to locate, identify and move aquatic wildlife in an Ennis, Texas, lake before conducting maintenance on the spillway. (Photo by Trevor Welsh)
Lessons learned during the pandemic can help with the transformation of the Army’s workplace and workforce.
by Cameron Rice
As of this writing in the summer of 2021, more than 50 percent of adult Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and, it appears, life will be going back to normal, or normal of sorts. Businesses will resume their normal hours and operations, schools will start a new year in the fall with possible in-person attendance, and families will have celebrated Independence Day and Labor Day in larger gatherings than last year.
Still, returning to normal as life was pre-COVID is not as simple as flipping a switch. The experience will be different for everyone depending on a variety of factors beyond just vaccination status. Those who lost loved ones during the pandemic may experience post-traumatic stress associated with resuming everyday functions. Those who, before the pandemic, already faced social anxieties may now find those anxieties beyond controllable. That’s only one facet of the effects of the pandemic on society.
As a country, we may be exiting the COVID bunker, but a new day has dawned, and things will never go back to exactly how they were before the first infections. Additionally, there is the stark reality that the pandemic is still going on with the spread of variants. Therefore, a return to normal isn’t possible until the pandemic is completely over, which is a timeline that appears impossible to forecast. The pandemic, by itself, was a catalyst for change and, because the effect on many was at such a personal level, the reaction to that change is going to be varied. These varied changes are causing a cultural change throughout business, government, education, religion and other aspects of life.
A COMPLEX ENVIRONMENT
These variable changes are exacerbated in organizations that have large and wide-ranging sets of functions, such as DOD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ mission touches all 50 states, 90 countries, and supports more than 150 Army installations as well as 90 Air Force installations worldwide. In addition to this worldwide footprint, the Corps’ missions include operating over 600 dams and 250 navigation locks, and supporting over 12,000 miles of commercial inland navigation and more than 900 harbors; these numbers equate to the Corps of Engineers addressing all components of navigation for a waterway almost half the circumference of the Earth. Besides the sheer size of the mission, the Corps also interacts with all levels of government, ranging from municipalities to state to federal agencies, within all 50 states and with multiple layers of government in foreign countries. When the pandemic began, the Corps quickly found that this catalyst and the response to this catalyst could drastically change the workplace and workforce within the Corps for the perceivable future.
The Corps, as well as many other federal agencies, has been a traditional office workplace dominated by a physical presence. Yet the massive change in the employee-employer relationship caused by the pandemic meant that employees have shown that they can accomplish the mission from any location. Many federal agencies recognized this new advantage; employees were not bound by an onsite office and many employees found their new flexibilities in work location and hours liberating. Additionally, the Army began to recognize that by removing the need for onsite work, there could be considerable savings because of reduced overhead and maintenance. As in most cases, the answer isn’t a simple one, such as declaring that all office workers should be remote workers, to allow the Army to stop paying for office space. The decisions involved with workplace and workforce transformation have ramifications that ripple through every organization and every facet of employee-employer relationships.
For example, the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps of Engineers reaches from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and covers 370,000 square miles with portions of 12 states bordering the Mississippi River. The division services more than 28 million people through the work of six districts located in Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. If, through the process of adapting to the new normal, the Mississippi Valley Division made the decision to consolidate certain physical locations, this could upset many local leaders, current employees who live in those physical locations, the unions that represent those employees, and those who rely on our business, such as the General Services Administration, which leases many of the Corps’ office spaces.
This example illustrates the necessity for a detailed plan describing the approach required to return to work without alienating key stakeholders. If we do not engage in a deliberate way, organizations such as the Corps of Engineers run the risk of losing trust, which is essential to mission accomplishment. At this time in our response to the pandemic, many senior leaders are all asking the same question: What should an approach to the next normal look like and what timeline is associated with this response?
A DELIBERATE APPROACH
The primary approach used by organizations during the pandemic involved mission command and decisions made locally to keep a mission on track. This approach may have been appropriate during the first phases of the pandemic, but it might not be sufficient for building the foundation for future success. According to Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, “mission command” is the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation. Further, mission command stems from the Army’s view that war is chaotic and uncertain such that no plan can account for every eventual outcome.
During the early stages of the pandemic, this approach was well suited, especially for organizations such as the Corps of Engineers, because of the variety of local conditions faced by subordinate leaders. Initially, the belief was that these responses would be stopgap measures to react and ensure mission accomplishment before resuming normal operations. Over the duration of the pandemic, however, the need for mission command has decreased as reality has set in: The next normal will require cultural change and necessitates a careful and cautious approach that involves a broader audience than in years past.
The framework for such an approach already exists with The Army People Strategy, which was published in October 2019. This strategy outlines four lines of effort: acquire, develop, employ and retain talent to achieve strategic outcomes. Additionally, culture is one of the three key enabling objectives and, considering that this was written before the pandemic, the importance of culture has increased drastically. Furthermore, the strategy emphasizes to leaders that the new culture must be people-focused, and it eliminates harmful behaviors while building trust through leaders modeling the change and communicating it openly.
The response to the pandemic and the development of the new normal is the perfect opportunity to initiate the people-focused strategy. For example, the telework policies and exemptions allowed during the pandemic effectively removed many barriers to entry for a variety of individuals. The single parent could now continue to do their job from home remotely while managing their family life. Before the pandemic they may have had to choose between work and family. This would either cause the organization to lose a valued member who brings a different perspective to an organization or cause an employee to build resentment at the loss of work-life balance. The response to the pandemic and the facilitation of this people-focused culture allows all organizations to repair these divides between employer and employee and create the conditions for trust to develop. Leaders can operationalize this opportunity to evolve their business practices in order to get and keep the best people in a competitive talent management marketplace.
One such aspect involves the fiscal pressures associated with maintaining and recruiting in an area that has a high cost of living. Locality pay can drive many of the business decisions within the Corps of Engineers because the Corps has some districts in very high locality pay areas. U.S. government employees receive both base pay and locality pay. The latter is based on the expense of living in a given area. For example, the locality pay in San Francisco, where one Corps district is located, is 41.44 percent, while the locality pay in Chicago is 28.59 percent. The national average is 15.95 percent. Organizations in higher locality pay areas have a business incentive to reduce costs by reducing the number of employees who live and work within their locality pay areas. Therefore, their decisions to embrace more workplace flexibilities, such as remote work, may have wide-ranging impacts that force other organizations to adopt such policies in order to remain competitive in mission execution, talent acquisition and employee retention. The ripple effect is that organizations in outlying areas, like the Corps district office in Vicksburg, Mississippi, may not move as quickly toward remote work or telework because the local conditions do not incentivize nontraditional workplace initiatives.
COMPETING FOR TALENT
Leaders in Vicksburg should recognize the necessity of change by adopting some of the approaches that the higher locality pay organizations are using in order to remain competitive for top talent. They will need to embrace these changes in order to retain their top talent that may drift toward the more expansive policies that these other organizations offer. The best course of action is to follow The Army People Strategy by placing the recruiting, retention and well-being of all employees at the forefront with a timeline that works for all organizational cultures involved.
Additionally, the Corps of Engineers faces decisions about training. Traditionally, training within the Corps is run by the Corps of Engineers Learning Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This center coordinates with subject matter experts within the Corps and serves as a hub to connect the demand for training with the facilitators. During the pandemic, the entire learning system went 100 percent virtual. The impact for the Corps was unforeseen cost savings.
Typically, the tuition is not expensive, but districts spend twice that amount to get the individual to the training location. Once tuition, travel and TDY expenses are combined, the Corps spends more than $45 million a year just to ensure that training occurs in a physical location. During the pandemic, the cost savings resulted in more than $30 million that could be reallocated to more virtual training or to other investments. As the pandemic abates, the discussion is now about the right mix of in-person and virtual classrooms. Although the virtual setting resulted in considerable savings, leaders must analyze what is lost by not having in-person interactions.
FAIR IS FAIR
The main friction point between supervisors and employees involves ensuring equity. Inconsistencies were common during the response to the pandemic as supervisors reacted to the needs of the mission. Some offices were 100 percent virtual for the last 15 months while others encouraged individuals to return as soon as possible, which may have created hardships due to dependent care not being available. In other cases, some supervisors required a daily report from their employees while other supervisors evaluated employees based upon work output.
Regardless, the Corps recognizes that these inconsistencies should not continue in the next normal. True equity among all offices within an organization will be difficult to achieve, but helping employees and supervisors understand how telework will involve other team members in the next normal, will be essential for success.
The culture has changed, not because of a deliberate decision by leaders, but because of a pandemic. This process of cultural change is less about getting the procedural aspects and administrative changes correct and more about participating in deliberate decisions that can have generational impacts. History will judge the leaders of today on whether they use all resources and opinions to develop a more progressive workplace and workforce that is agile and adaptive to future events. The enormity of these decisions creates fear and hesitation in many leaders. Some leaders fall back to a position of comfort—the office space that was left behind when the pandemic began. One approach to handling these fears is a deliberate process to address concerns with the next normal, so that leaders can be more willing to accept the culture change that is occurring.
The core truth is that the next normal is not something that can be handled solely with new policies and procedures, but must be tackled in a holistic manner on a realistic timeline. The goal within this cultural change is not to create a completely virtual workforce. Rather, it is to create a culture in which mission accomplishment, the voice of the employee, and the role of the supervisor are treated with parity such that esprit de corps evolves as a natural byproduct.
For more information, contact the author at email@example.com.
CAMERON RICE has over 15 years of federal service, including ten years in uniform as an Army infantry officer. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Columbus State University and a B.S. in business administration and management from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he earned his commission. As an Army officer, he conducted various assignments around the world, including deployments to Iraq and Africa. After leaving the service, he worked in private industry for two years before returning to federal service with the Corps of Engineers, where he is currently the strategic planner for the Mississippi Valley Division.