“We're doing everything we can to attract the talent that we need and retain the talent that we have,” says John Willison, deputy to the commanding general of DEVCOM.

“We're doing everything we can to attract the talent that we need and retain the talent that we have,” says John Willison, deputy to the commanding general of DEVCOM. U.S. Army photo

One Army Command’s Plan for the ‘Future of Work’

“We want to provide the flexibility to our workforce to work where and when they're most productive,” says John Willison, a senior executive at the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command.

The Army’s leading technology development organization is planning to extend work flexibilities first instituted for the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to improve productivity and advance diversity, equity and inclusiveness across its workforce of 25,000 civilians, soldiers and contractors. 

The Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, or DEVCOM, is a major subordinate command of Army Futures Command. DEVCOM released a concept paper earlier this year outlining the challenges and opportunities that arose during the expansion of telework over the course of the pandemic. 

“This is a very important topic for us. It’s something we really put front and center in our interest in moving forward relative to talent management,” John Willison, deputy to the commanding general of DEVCOM, told Government Executive. “While we are a research and engineering center, in the end it really is a people business and so we've been mindful about making sure we're doing everything we can to attract the talent that we need and retain the talent that we have.” 

Government Executive spoke with Willison on Friday about the future of work at DEVCOM. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

How and when did this initiative start?

The first phase started when the pandemic started and really went through this past January. That is our response to the pandemic, making sure we're taking care of our workforce; having a lot of people work remotely for the safety of our employees foremost. And then, [having] to figure out how do we continue our critical mission in a different way. [In August 2020] what we noticed from our workforce was a lot of concern going into the fall. We saw a lot of concern about kids going back to school, people going to school themselves. So, in August, we said we're going to continue to work remotely to the maximum extent possible through December, with the intent that in January we publish a concept paper, in which we really lay out post-pandemic and, from a long-term perspective, how we saw things going.

The end of that first phase was this past August, so last month, getting approval from our 4-star general, General [John] Murray, commander of the Army Futures Command, to go on to phase two, which is implementing everything we learned in phase one on a more enduring basis. 

This current phase we're in is about implementing everything we’ve learned and putting some measures in place to see how it's working and then the third phase is what we look for, rather than an objective.

What are some of those lessons that you learned?

We learned a lot. In our concept paper, one of the two taglines is we talk about the core of what we do and why we do it: Army research, development and engineering for the Army. But the where and when and the who and the how will change.

We want to provide the flexibility to our workforce to work where and when they're most productive. So, we've learned a lot about what that looks like. It looks very different for different people at different times. So, one of the big lessons learned is to be very disciplined about how we do this, but not be prescriptive. We want to make sure we're providing our employees the flexibility they want and they deserve to be the most productive. That's really the determination by managers and leaders with the input from the employees. 

So that puts a pretty big requirement on our leaders from a leadership presence. What does being present as a leader mean if you've got some people working remotely, sometimes, some people in a lab or in an office sometimes? And then the other thing we’ve learned is to make sure we’re saying, “work where and when you’re most productive.” 

We're going to provide the tools to do so. And a big step for us will really define what those productivity measures are, so that we'll measure it and we're focused on the productivity of managing people's time or managing people's location with managing productivity. A big lesson learned is to make sure you've got those measures so we can look back over time and see are we really being as productive as before? Or do we really think—as I think there’s potential to be—more productive going forward?

How many employees are involved in this approximately? 

[There are about] 15,000 government employees in our command: 162 are military, so the rest are civilians. And when you add in our support contractors that are an extension of our workforce, that takes you up to over 25,000 people that we’re interested in trying to figure out how to manage on a day-to-day basis. As far as the range, this is the tricky part. We've got some people that we know will work remotely if not 100%, darn near 100%, of the time for the foreseeable future. A lot of that is in our business functions, a lot of that is, I’ll say, “thinking jobs,” analytical jobs, things that can be done as effectively remotely, where people prefer to do that. 

Over 10,000 of our employees are engineers and scientists. For most of those people it will be a mix of some time spent in our special purpose, high tech lab space and then some time potentially remotely. We do have some people that have to be 100% in the lab. We've got people that do chemical biological defense. We’ve got people that do energetics and warheads and explosives and so we do have some people that, since the pandemic, have pretty much worked 100% on site because of the safety concerns or security concerns that we have. So it really depends. That's what makes it so interesting, so complex, but we think provides a lot of absolute opportunities within this as well.

Do you think what you’re doing at DEVCOM can serve as a model for other Defense Department components or even other federal agencies? 

Absolutely. We’ve got a lot of collaboration with our Air Force, Navy and Coastguard counterparts, because they’ve got very similar organizations to us. But we’ve had a lot of interactions with other government agencies, as well as with industry, academia, especially since a lot of them are partners. And so we believe that we can be a model. We’re relying on it being a model in part because one of the big opportunities we think there is in this is we do a lot of work with our external partners.

In doing the research that we do we want the best ideas for wherever they are. And so we're excited about and counting on the fact that this extends to other people because by doing that, we hope to not be defined by our physical space, but by our ability to reach people no matter where they are. We've seen a lot of excitement and a lot of interest from our own workforce, thinking about their own ability to get involved in projects that aren't limited to a geographical location. We've got a major site in Boston, one in Detroit and one in Huntsville, Alabama, a number in Maryland and Virginia, one in Jersey, one in Orlando. We've got people in already close to 100 locations in the continental United States and internationally as well. 

We're in the space of being innovative, creative, productive and so the more we can network, the more they can learn, the more they contribute, the more excited they get, the more productive they are. And so we're relying on this not just as a way to provide people flexibility in how they manage their own time and energy, but also provides people opportunities in where they can do something else without having to physically pick up and move.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We really do believe this will allow us to attract talent that potentially we have not been able to attract before. We have the opportunity in some cases to take the work to where people are, which is really exciting for us, especially when you look at it through the lens of another very important [topic] for us which is diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Our business is innovation. We know that innovation comes from diversity of thought and that diversity of thought comes from having a diverse workforce. And diverse in all kinds of different ways, to include geography, background, educational experience. And so we are excited about the fact that we could potentially connect people that have not worked together before or would not work together if it [required] coming to a single place. 

We can spur on greater innovation with the diversity of thought by reaching out to more diverse [groups] within our already existing organization or a talent pool that we will now be able to tap into because of our willingness and our interest, embracing the flexibility that we can provide people to work where they’re most productive. So it’s not just a response to a pandemic, but it’s an opportunity to work in a different way, and really revisit the way we have worked and then move forward from there.