What will the national security workplace look like after the pandemic is over? With vaccination levels on the rise and restrictions on our daily lives beginning to lift, the question of how our professional lives will look and feel once COVID-19 is in the collective rearview has increasingly come to occupy our attention. We watch the private sector move to remote or hybrid work models and share quiet speculations with each other (over Zoom and Slack) about whether and when we might return to our offices – and what all this might mean for national security work. Ultimately, one key question has arisen: Will national security leaders and managers use the hard-won experience of COVID-19 to build a better future workplace? Or will they snap back to the way things were because bureaucracies — especially government bureaucracies — just do their thing? And while human resources and management questions tend to be as exciting as plumbing (which is to say, not very), how organizations answer that question will determine whether the United States government will be able to recruit and retain the workforce it needs to keep the country safe. Plumbing and human resources failures can both be catastrophic, after all.
A ROSE-TINTED REARVIEW MIRROR?
Inertia is a physical force, and the world of national security is susceptible to its power. The way business has been done protects the nation’s secrets, after all. Closed networks and closed environments shield our work from the prying eyes of American adversaries. Water cooler chats and random exchanges in the office lead to important collaborations. These factors have long argued for keeping national security workers confined to the same spaces and places. And coming out of COVID-19, some want to return to the way things have always been done.
In this case, a word of caution might be in order: the risks of returning to how things were in the “before times” might far outweigh the rewards. The question of how to build a better national security workplace — how to better enable our professionals to do the nation’s work — has long been a subject of interest to me; it is one of the many reasons that I wrote my novel about being a young woman in the Pentagon. After collecting anecdotes and stories while writing that novel, and after attending many, many book talks with audiences comprising national security professionals that work at a wide variety of departments and agencies, it became clear to me that the way things were pre-pandemic wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Inertia is a physical force, and the world of national security is susceptible to its power. The way business has been done protects the nation’s secrets, after all.
Rather, according to the (many) stories that I have heard, perverse incentives and workplace toxicities have abounded across the departments and agencies tasked with national security responsibilities. Perhaps it is because the closed, hierarchical nature of the national security community has allowed a number of toxic leaders to have an outsized, negative, impact on their employees and institutions. Or perhaps it is because we have fallen into a set of workplace management styles that are more reminiscent of the approaches applied during the industrial revolution than best practice 21st-century knowledge work. Or perhaps it is because we have built a culture that prioritizes busy-ness for busy-ness’s sake, and that judges employees by how long they sit at their desk in the office. Perhaps still, it is because for many, work-life balance is nearly nonexistent — work constitutes the overwhelming balance of life — which makes employees even more susceptible to burnout and psychological vulnerability (when one’s identity is conflated with one’s work, any professional setback becomes a judgment of character and person — a dark place indeed). Or perhaps it is all of the above.
Regardless of the reasons, the practical upshot is that we are witnessing, as some scholars have noted, a national security workforce crisis. The Biden administration seems to agree. To add a bit of color to the analysis, let me share some of the anecdotes that I have collected over the years. Some professionals that I have encountered simply left the world of national security because they were sick of workplace abuse, or because they were tired of feeling like they were just a cog in a machine. To many people who ultimately decided to leave, it just didn’t seem worth it to stay the extra hours in a SCIF to churn out that last PowerPoint or receive the wire brush treatment from their bosses. Again. Others that I have conversed with stayed, but retreated into cynicism, resigning themselves to the fact that things would never change. Still others shared with me the painful frustration of missing family birthdays or anniversaries or happy hours or soccer games.
Of course, the reflections of one author who attended dozens of book talks with thousands of people is hardly a scientific survey. Still, were I managing employees in the national security workforce, I would take these reflections as a starting point for inquiry within my own organization. It remains troubling to me that these were not one-off observations or unique to one particular department or agency. These were sentiments shared by employees across the enterprise. This kind of disgruntlement in any industry would be of serious concern but given the unique roles and responsibilities of the national security workforce, critically low morale can have dire implications. How can we devise strategies to effectively contend with China or Russia with a workforce that, as a result of headquarters reductions, furloughs, and office toxicity, has many of its people feeling like they, as a number have shared with me, are just “phoning it in”? How can we come up with the best policy options for our leaders if midcareer professionals decide it’s no longer worth it to stay? The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to reimagine the future of work, and an opportunity to shed old, bad habits. Some considerations that must be taken into account as we imagine an ideal post-pandemic workplace are detailed below.
USE REMOTE WORK TO BUILD A BETTER WORKFORCE PIPELINE
Many have noted that the national security community has a long way to go when it comes to creating a more diverse, inclusive workforce. This is, in part, because the barriers to entry in the community are high and privilege the wealthier parts of society. Internships have long been a key requirement for establishing one’s professional footing in Washington. But the cost of living is extremely high in DC; many younger professionals simply cannot afford to take internships — even the paid ones. Others take on more student debt in order to be able to get their foot in the door, which can create longer term financial issues (more on that in a moment). Yet remote work over the past year proved that we can recruit talented interns from around the country, benefit from their skills and insights, and help them get their foot in the door — all without the massive financial and human capital price tags that come with in-office work. Using remote work to remove socioeconomic barriers to entry in the national security workforce can allow us to benefit from any number of diverse voices and perspectives.
USE REMOTE WORK (AND OTHER TOOLS) TO HELP EMPLOYEES BUILD FINANCIAL FLEXIBILITY
The high cost of living in Washington, paired with often-crippling student loan debt, means that many younger and midcareer professionals increasingly find themselves delaying key life decisions such as having kids or buying their first home. One younger man once lamented to me that between student debt and rent, he was unsure he would ever be able to afford to have children. Again, my evidence is anecdotal, but it seems to me that if and when these kinds of life altering tradeoffs exist for employees, managers have an enormous stake in doing their part to help their workers overcome financial obstacles, especially if they want to keep talent from being poached by private sector companies that often boast higher salaries. In other industries, some professionals that are no longer required to physically show up to work have moved out of high-priced urban apartments in places like Brooklyn and into larger homes in rural and peri-urban areas. By relocating outside of the Washington DC area, remote work can allow some professionals to gain more solid financial footing. Regardless, given the enormous financial barriers to entry for many national security roles, it seems to me that national security managers could usefully play a role in helping their employees devise strategies to become unshackled by debt; remote work might be one such tool for doing so.
HONOR THE ANALYTIC CREATIVE PROCESS AND ALLOW PEOPLE TO COLLABORATE INTENTIONALLY
National security work is largely about identifying and analyzing key problems and, accordingly, finding and applying appropriate solutions. It is a field that does not generally consider itself creative (and has also been criticized as insufficiently creative), but when done well, often relies heavily upon creative analytic processes. This is because problem framing is everything, and creative tools lend themselves to looking at issues through a variety of different lenses and viewpoints. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted creativity scholar, maintains that there are at least two key phases in the production of a creative work: idea generation (inspiration) and production (the actual work of making the thing that was inspired). Creative work is hard, laborious and time-intensive. Inspiration can come from anywhere: a social media interaction, a water cooler chat, a conference sidebar, or a walk in the park. Production, by contrast, usually constitutes the lion’s share of active, conscious work and often requires what is called a state of “flow.” Flow is defined as that state of being when your mind is completely focused on the task at hand; unsurprisingly, flow can be elusive and is easily disrupted.
Throughout my career, the days that I have worked from home are the days that I have been able to enter that state of flow and get my real writing done.
I have long been of the view that the office is where creative processes tend to die. Simply stuffing workers in their cubicles and expecting creative magic to happen when colleagues bump into each other in the hallway is, for some, more myth than reality. For me, inspiration and collaboration happen when interaction is intentional; when a colleague and I are both thinking about a shared problem and have unstructured time and space to kick around ideas together. And those intentional collaborations rarely occurred in the office itself (indeed, being closed in our offices with the same people risks leading to unproductive group think). I used to find that chats in the margins of conferences were the primary places and spaces that would occur, although in the era of the pandemic, social media, email listservs and Zoom have also provided me with important collaborative space (including the collaboration leading to this essay collection). As for production, the everyday distractions associated with being in the office (not to mention the soul-crushing commute) meant that I would never get deep analytic work done while at my desk. Throughout my career, the days that I have worked from home are the days that I have been able to enter that state of flow and get my real writing done. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ability to align my creative analytic process with my work schedule has meant that full-time remote work has been professionally amazing for me. Others, of course, work differently and get a lot of energy from being in the office. To me, the point is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing knowledge work; it follows that leaders might usefully design ways to allow employees to develop their own creative analytic work style.
EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY TO IMPROVE INCLUSIVENESS
While Zoom fatigue is definitely hitting a lot of people hard, over the course of the year I have been surprised to find that that online meetings are increasingly my preferred way of interacting with colleagues. Over the years, despite having wonderful colleagues, on balance I have found that I have needed to master the art of interruption to be able to make a point in a meeting. Zoom, however, allows me to raise my hand and wait to be called on. If I have an urgent “two-finger” intervention, I will often type it into the chat box. This way of communicating has taken a lot of the stress and inherent (and unpleasant) combativeness out of interacting with colleagues in meetings. For similar reasons, I have also found the utilization by think tanks of online platforms to conduct roundtables and other events extremely liberating. An added bonus: Time efficiency. I can now simply click on a link and attend an event that, in the before times, would have easily taken an hour to travel to and from.
RETHINK WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Building on some emerging literature from the business world, Wendy Sherman argues that work-life balance is an elusive target; work-life integration is a more appropriate goal for national security roles. Reading her memoir, her meaning of work-life integration appears to be focused on designing strategies to allow one’s personal life to be more conducive to professional life, and vice-versa. In other words, finding ways to harness talent regardless of personal circumstances is critical. She even highlights the example of one key employee that she allowed to work remotely from Montana and commute to DC as necessary during the Iran nuclear negotiations. COVID-19 has shown us that the model of workplace flexibility is scalable; that employees across the community can achieve better work-life integration through remote work. For my part, regaining the two hours every day that I once spent commuting has afforded me precious time to help out my aging parents, which has been a tremendous gift.
PRIORITIZE WORKPLACE RESILIENCE
As national security professionals we (at least in theory) need to be clear-eyed about the future security environment. The National Intelligence Council warns us that as a result of deficiencies in health infrastructures and increasing interconnections between human and animal health, disease-born pathogens may be on the rise. In other words, the next pandemic might be closer than we’d like to think. There is also the matter of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, whenever that might be. Vaccination, while a critically important layer of defense, is not a panacea. Vaccine reluctance may inhibit herd immunity from taking hold and create the conditions for more COVID-19 variants to emerge. Despite the natural enthusiasm one can’t help but feel as the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel appears in sight, it may yet be a while before it is safe to return to office spaces — or before employees feel safe returning to them. All this argues for designing resilient offices and institutions; remote work is likely a key component of workplaces that can handle the stress of future calamities, including pandemics. Fortunately, even key leaders in the intelligence community argue that it is possible to protect secrets and perform the national security mission in remote and hybrid workplaces.
Hopefully, the above considerations will help current and future managers devise their own strategies to address some of the underlying problems that — at least from my vantage point — appear to be quietly plaguing the national security workforce. Will these changes solve every problem? No. But they are a starting point, at least. Productive growth is pretty much always uncomfortable. That’s just how the cookie crumbles. It therefore seems to me that given all the problems in the national security workplace, we ought to be fighting our own impulses to return to our “back to normal” comfort zones. Instead, we should collectively and deliberately think about how we can build a workforce that works for all of us. Put another way: what do we risk by trying to return to how things were? After all we have been through in the past year, it would be a tragedy not to apply what we have learned from COVID-19 to building a healthier workplace and work force. This collection of essays represents one starting point for that conversation.
Kathleen J. McInnis is the author of The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon — a novel which is, among other things, a study of national security personnel policy and dysfunction. All views shared are exclusively those of the author and not any organization with which she is affiliated.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.