Amidst a global pandemic, the Army, like many civilian employers, turned to telework. But while companies are seeking to preserve the benefits of this approach in a post-pandemic world, most Army units appear to be returning to established institutional processes and ingrained cultural norms. This includes a return to the traditional workplace for almost all soldiers, regardless of the nature of tasks they must perform.
Certain aspects of combat will never be carried out over Zoom. But the nature of war is becoming increasingly decentralized and remote. As a result, maintaining Army combat readiness requires exploiting, rather than ignoring, the efficiencies gained by decentralization. Working remotely during the pandemic, tens of thousands of soldiers reported an increase in productivity and job satisfaction. The Army should learn from this forced experiment. Selective and targeted remote work billets will help the Army to achieve a higher level of sustainable readiness.
The Army should take three immediate steps to leverage remote work’s advantages. First, it should reevaluate every soldier’s ordinary garrison workflow with an eye toward the evolving nature of combat. Second, it should do the same for existing training and personnel management policies, many of which rely on antiquated assumptions that predated the internet. Finally, it should recognize remote work as an opportunity to attract and retain talent, especially diverse talent.
Remote Work Trains Mission Command for Modern Combat
Senior leaders regularly tout the need for operational units that succeed in complex operations despite geographic dispersion. Brigade-level military exercises often train for this. But lower-level units, which rely on shared office spaces and concurrent work cycles, have little opportunity to practice the kind of decentralized coordination necessary for modern war.
Centralization and synchronization certainly have their benefits, but these come at the expense of the principle that units should “train as they fight.” Effective training occurs in environments that resemble armed conflict. A blind cultural default to centralization, without consideration for the need to stress-test remote systems, leads to missed opportunities to gain confidence and competence in a low-risk environment. Units that integrate remote work into garrison environments will be forced to develop redundant communications systems and identify points of failure before they become liabilities in actual conflicts. Insofar as remote repetitions will identify weaknesses in systems, they will also identify liabilities in personnel — those soldiers who fail to perform when offered increased autonomy.
Finally, working through contingency communications in garrison can help units to develop the skills and adaptive mindset that they will need when deployed. Focusing on training units to operate against hostile jamming technology would be especially useful.
Decentralized Work Unleashes Trapped Capacity
As the Army’s core requirements shift toward multi-domain battle, a bias against remote work will trap capacity. Indeed, two recent programs have shown how much the Army stands to gain when it embraces a more efficient approach to workflow.
The first program is the Army Enterprise Cloud Management Agency’s Coding Resources and Transformation Environment. It allows soldiers from across the Army to build applications in a secure manner, and was recently used to deploy an Army-wide data science platform named COEUS. Previously, the creation and deployment of a data science platform for servicemember end users would have taken months or years, in large part due to security accreditation requirements. However, by leveraging remote contributors and empowering them with cloud security automation, the Coding Resources and Transformation Environment facilitated the project’s security accreditation in mere days.
A second example is the Digital Apprenticeship Program. This program involves a collaboration between the Special Operations Command, Air Force’s TRON coding boot camp, and other military units aimed at upskilling software developers and data analysts. The program allows military personnel and government civilians to complete a three-month coding boot camp followed by a six-month apprenticeship on a special operations digital team. By leveraging distance learning, the program provides those who best understand their own organization’s software problems with the tools to solve those problems in-house. Furthermore, by avoiding costly station moves and travel, the Digital Apprenticeship Program is able to provide software developers to the military at a marginal cost to the government of about $15,000 per trained developer.
Institutional policies and norms that trap capacity will handicap the U.S. military in future conflicts. As a recent National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence report states, “the human talent deficit is the government’s most conspicuous deficit” in leveraging AI-enabled technologies for national security purposes. Shrinking this deficit will require new paradigms like Coding Resources and Transformation Environment and the Digital Apprenticeship Program.
Remote Work Prevents Burnout and Increases Diversity
Achieving peak combat readiness requires substantial sacrifice and flexibility from soldiers across the Army. However, achieving sustainable combat readiness requires that most soldiers maintain some semblance of work-life balance. A limited and targeted number of remote work billets could help to reduce burnout by allowing participants to prioritize geographic flexibility at the times they need it most for their career and their family. This, in turn, can facilitate greater career satisfaction and allow soldiers to ultimately contribute more over the long term.
While military leaders have begun investing in resources to bolster resilience in the force, such as expanding soldiers’ access to mental performance coaches, these programs often fail to address the underlying factors that trigger burnout. Research demonstrates that enhancing workforce autonomy and flexibility prevents burnout more effectively than investing in wellness programs. Further, Gallup research found that employees empowered to work from home part-time (as opposed to being fully remote or fully on-site) had the lowest reported burnout rates and highest levels of engagement. One recent Department of Defense report further notes that 47 percent of department employees felt that they were more productive when teleworking, while only 12 percent felt that their productivity had decreased. Although these subjective beliefs may not reflect actual productivity, employees who self-report as more productive are less likely to fall victim to burnout.
In addition to promoting work-life balance, remote work billets can help to diversify the Army experience and, commensurately, its workforce. For example, flexible work options can help to empower the growing number of dual-career couples, including those serving in the military. The Army People Strategy’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Annex notes that “as demographic trends continue to change, our Army must continue to be a place where all Soldiers and Civilians know they belong [and] are valued.” “Valuing” soldiers means accommodating unique personal and private needs, including those that may have been culturally disfavored in the past.
Although the regular Army will never achieve the flexibility offered by some corporate civilian employers, a one-size-fits-all assignment process will severely diminish its appeal in the labor market. This means it will continue promoting soldiers with similar backgrounds and beliefs to those who prospered in the legacy system.
According to David Ahern, a strategic planning specialist for the Army Talent Management Task Force,
As the complexity and uncertainty of combat increase, diversity becomes an operational imperative. If everyone solving a problem looks alike, thinks alike, and comes from the same background, they will be easier to beat, and more likely to consider very narrow options.
Technological advancements have fundamentally changed the meaning of “workplace.” Already, leaders sign forms digitally, rally their formations by tweet, train their troops through YouTube, and perform myriad other tasks without setting foot on their assigned duty station. The Army’s stale understanding of duty stations and leave prevent it from further taking advantage of these changes.
While soldiers cannot telework to combat, many of the tasks confronting military leaders, from planning training cycles to administrative functions, can be done remotely. A limited quantity of remote billets for work that does not require a constant physical presence could offer respite to Army leaders. Hybrid roles could also better accommodate the growing number of Army leaders with professional spouses. Most importantly, these billets could stress-test critical mission command capabilities that are often overlooked despite being vital to 21st-century armed conflict.
Matt Fitzgerald writes at the nexus of ethics and innovation in national security. He is a judge advocate, former infantry officer, and recent recipient of the National Institute for Military Justice’s Admiral Jenkins Writing Award.
James “Jay” Long is an innovation officer within the Special Operations Command, a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute, an Army Mad Scientist, and a National Security Innovation Network Startup Innovation Fellow.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense. The analysis presented stems from the authors’ academic research of publicly available sources, not from protected operational information. All errors and omissions are those of the authors.