The future of telework at Homeland Security

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The nature of work has been changing for a long time, thanks in part to constantly improving remote and other technologies. Including online collaboration software. Now the pandemic has changed how government employees and their managers think about telework. For one example, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the top guy at the Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, Bill Bryan.

Interview transcript:

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Tom Temin: Mr. Bryan, good to have you on.

Bill Bryan: Hello, Tom. And thanks for having me on your show today.

Tom Temin: Science and Technology, I guess, is maybe not an operational aspect of Homeland Security. It’s a lot of research and grant-making and so forth. So is it fair to say that most of the people there are teleworking and have been since this whole thing descended on us?

Bill Bryan: Yes, Tom. Actually, since the beginning of mid-March is when we really started to do teleworking en masse, outside of the folks working in our labs–they have to go to work every day. They don’t have that opportunity. And I also want to give a shoutout to a vast majority of the folks in the Department of Homeland Security. As you know, it’s a law enforcement agency, and many of those don’t have this opportunity. They’re on the front lines each and every day, having to put themselves at risk, just because of the nature of the work that they do. But in S&T, a large portion of our workforce is able to do that.

Tom Temin: And you yourself are a longtime member of the Army, a soldier, and then you have had a fairly long federal career, following the Army and the Energy Department and other places. What did you think of the whole telework idea?

Bill Bryan: I was never a fan of teleworking, particularly for myself, not so much the workforce. Initially, I had to get over that. I didn’t think I would be disciplined enough, frankly, to go to work in my home each and every day. And I’ve learned that, you know what, I can actually do this and I can actually find that my productivity has increased dramatically. You know, I was commuting 4 1/2 hours a day, both ways round trip, when I was going into the office. That has now turned into, actually, a work time, and I did find that once I sectioned off a piece of my home as my work office, I’m able to conduct business just like I’m in the office. So for me, I’m now a believer, and I see the value in it. And I’m actually impressed as I look across our workforce in S&T, the productivity that’s coming out of our workforce.

Tom Temin: And are you aware of or at least tuned in to some of the technological investments or changes or updates that the IT people had to do to enable all of your people to work this way?

Bill Bryan: Oh, absolutely. Microsoft Teams is a platform that we use within our organization to visually connect, and I can’t stress how important that visual connection is. I think if we were doing this via phone conferences all the time, it would be a very different picture. But we’re able to really connect with people at a much different level. Seeing people in their homes really just increases and enhances that personal relationship, and also communications and collaboration. Three years ago, I don’t believe this organization would have been able to do this as effectively as it is today, only because we weren’t structured that way. But we went through a restructuring. We were much more matrixed, and we had to depend on each other across the organization. And so when we went to this teleworking and using Microsoft Teams, the communication, the collaboration–the collaboration was already there. Microsoft Teams made that communication much more robust. And it just really opened up a lot of opportunities for us within the organization. And, frankly, it was important for me to make sure that people just didn’t feel isolated. So we we’ve also offered, through that visual tool, opportunities for wellness programs like yoga, we have weekly community comfort chat calls, we have work-life balance workshops. We even have water cooler meetings, where people can just come together and just chat and almost like have a happy hour after the workday. So it’s really opened up a lot of opportunities for us.

Tom Temin: Sure, I guess on video teleconferencing. It’s hard to tell whether someone’s got water or something stronger in that glass. It could be vodka for all we know.

Bill Bryan: That’s true.

Tom Temin: I was gonna ask about that in more detail. You’ve answered a lot of it. And that is there is evidence that for at least a certain portion of the population, some loneliness can set in, even with all of the screentime. So it sounds like you’re thinking of the psychic side of people working remotely, as well as the business and technical sides.

Bill Bryan: Yes, personal employee satisfaction, work-life balance, job satisfaction, is so important to me. People have a lot of challenges during this time, and I don’t have to restate them. All we see–look around and we see all these challenges, but we’re dealing in environments now where there are so many different guidelines and rules being put out by so many different jurisdictions. And within SMT we don’t just have Washington, Virginia, and Maryland to think about but we also have some folks in West Virginia or Pennsylvania and all those jurisdictions are very different. And so for me, it was really important to try to take the work environment and to lessen the stress, so to speak, on the employees, and allow them to really be able to build a life and structure their home around being able to do this effectively and efficiently, while still maintaining and managing their family, and all the other responsibilities thrust on them, that in the beginning, they didn’t have.

Tom Temin: Got it. We’re speaking with Bill Bryan. He is the senior official at the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate, performing the duties of the undersecretary. And what I wanted to ask about, two, in particular, is can you measure productivity? Can you measure output? Is there some way you can tell how it’s going at the macro level in terms of agency and mission performance?

Bill Bryan: Well, absolutely. At the macro level, our biggest metric is customer satisfaction. And I’m getting tremendously positive feedback from our customers, those that we’re actually work programs and projects for, and we haven’t skipped a beat. In fact, we’re actually more efficient and effective and doing the work that we’re doing. And that’s at the macro level. But at the end of the day, it really is a supervisor’s responsibility to manage the micro side of things, to ensure that the productivity is coming out of each and every one of their team members, but we are seeing some incredible numbers. Number one, the growth in our job satisfaction is on the rise within S&T. With our own internal polling and looking at how job satisfaction is within the organization, we’ve gone up 30% in just under a year. That’s an incredible change in just one year. We’re also seeing vast improvements in our external collaboration and coordination with industry. We have industry days on a regular basis. And normally in our industry day efforts, we’ll have maybe 70 or 80 participants. We had over 500 on the last one. We’ve had technology workshops where we normally would have 100 people participate. We’re now seeing 7 or 800 participate. Part of that reason, I think, is because we now as a government, are adjusting to this video world that industries have been doing for a long time. And now that we’ve embraced it, we’re comfortable in it, we know how to work in it. We’re now attracting many more folks into our circle of influence and allowing us to really get technology solutions out much faster than we were before.

Tom Temin: Well, then the question becomes why would you bring anybody back to the office after numbers and performance and activities like that?

Bill Bryan: You know, Tom, that’s a great question. And that is really in the forefront of all the minds of all the leaders who are now going through this period of time. For me, it’s about managing risk. And I’m perfectly comfortable managing my own risks, my health risks, so to speak. But I’m not as comfortable managing the health risks of all my individuals that work for me, and forcing them to put themselves in a place that we could actually create a much safer work zone for them. So for me, number one, we have to be able to accomplish our mission. We have to be able to do that. That’s what taxpayers pay us for. So we have to have mission accomplishment. Secondly, we need to work that and do that as safely as possible for the personnel involved. So what we’re doing is we’re taking a very serious look at what the future of our workforce, and we call it a “distributed workforce,” and what that’s going to look like. I’ve already told my folks that if they needed to relocate anywhere in the country, because they have special needs, whether that’s childcare needs, or children with special needs, or they have relatives that they need to take care of, and they’re not necessarily in the area, if they could do that, and remotely work in that location, I’m allowing them to do that. And, I’m not looking right now to bring people back anytime soon. In fact, we’re looking probably, in the future, to have a minimum of 50% of our folks teleworking. That’s a minimum. And I’ll tell you, this is an opportunity for folks to do this. And that opportunity doesn’t always come across the same with everybody. Some people like that, some people don’t like that. But we have to create a work environment that is really going to benefit the employee, keep the employee safe, and allow them to manage that work-life balance that they need to have, especially in an environment where they can’t control when their kids go to school or if they can go to school, or if they’re taking care of a vulnerable person at home, an elderly parent or relative, so to speak, or a child that may be a vulnerable population. So what I’m trying to do is minimize that risk and that worry of the work-life, so they can actually take care of those. And I’m finding that doing that is giving us a much more productive workforce. So why would I want to change it? At this point, I gotta tell you that I really don’t want to change it. At some point, we may be forced to have to make some adjustments. But I can assure you that going forward, we’re going to have a significant number of our workforce that are going to be teleworking or working as a distributed workforce going forward.

Tom Temin: And the final question: Do you see this or do you envision some way in which this could affect the real estate needs of the agency, and that you might need not only less space, but different space configured for the reality as you envision it in the future?

Bill Bryan: Again, another great point, Tom. And I’m not looking at this financially. I think at this point, no one’s really looking at financially. But I think that potentially could be a cascading benefit of looking at the new distributed workforce, because if I’m able to go into a workspace and have at least half of my people teleworking, I need half the workspace. And so as we’re looking, I know that is being discussed. I know that people are always moving around and changing offices and letting new contracts and leases expire and generate new ones of different buildings. We ourselves–we’re supposed to relocate in 2023. But even most plans now are being relooked as to what is going to be our future space requirement. So absolutely, I think first and foremost, though, it’s about the safety of the individual. But I think a cascading benefit is going to be a saving of dollars for the taxpayer.

Tom Temin: Bill Bryan is the senior official at the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate, performing the duties of the undersecretary. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bill Bryan: Thanks, Tom. Appreciate the opportunity.