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Deborah Lee James, Former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, discusses the shift to telework at the Air Force during the pandemic and the possibility of it continuing into the future

Remote work at the Air Force could outlast the coronavirus. General Arnold Bunch, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, plans to review all the Air Force job descriptions to evaluate their compatibility with telework. Deborah Lee James, former Air Force Secretary, spoke with Government Matters’ Marjorie Censer about the future of work-from-home options in the Air Force.

“I certainly hope [expanded telework] will be something that is carried on into the future even after we are no longer in the immediate crisis of COVID-19,” James said. Bunch has focused his efforts on planning and budgeting for telework, two things James said are key.

“He’s planning, he’s reviewing, and he also needs to budget some of the upfront costs that would be required,” she said. “I would hope others would follow suit.”

The budget for telework in the Air Force includes pilot programs that could eventually allow more people to work remotely. One such program would allow airmen to bring their own approved devices to work. Another program, deviceONE, would allow employees to access classified networks remotely. James said the increased capabilities from both of these programs would be a “game-changer” for remote work at the Air Force.

The Defense Information Systems Agency also plans to add classified telework capabilities to the Pentagon. Pentagon Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy said he hopes to expand the Commercial Virtual Remote Environment at the Pentagon by the end of the year.

In addition to the practical barriers to increased telework at the Air Force, James said the culture of the organization will need to change.

“I’m still a little bit of a skeptic that enough of a culture change will have occurred in time once COVID is behind us,” she said. “Still too many of us are in this old-think mentality that if a person isn’t working side-by-side with us, or if they’re not right down the hall and accessible to us in person within five minutes, or if they’re at home working, they’re not working at all.”

She said the Air Force will need to get past the skepticism about work-from-home if the capabilities are to continue after the pandemic. James said cybersecurity is another significant barrier to telework.

“With four million people working from home… the opportunities for cyber mischief, cyber spear-phishing have increased. Bad actors on the scene have lots more computers and attack surfaces that could be vulnerable,” she said.

James is pleased with the Air Force’s response to the coronavirus so far. She counts virtual private networks, secure laptops, licenses and increased bandwidth among the success stories of the Air Force’s shift to telework in response to the virus.

“A monumental task, and I would say, very well done,” she said.

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