It can be difficult to change 222 years of military heritage and tradition. Just ask Jesse Rangle, team lead and senior planner for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Exercise Support Division, which designs rigorous all-hazard and contingency preparedness exercises nationally for Coast Guard field units and helps execute and support those events.
Even though the Coast Guard established a telework policy in 2005, Rangle ran up against a cultural brick wall every time he tried to acquire the senior management support and endorsement he needed for his division to telework on a regular basis.
“A lot of our senior leaders are military or former military, and they have that Old Guard mentality that they want to see the people they are leading and know what they are doing at all times,” says Rangle. “We realized that it was going to take a paradigm shift to move forward, so we were patient and persistent in our efforts.”
That quiet but determined attitude has paid off. Eventually, a new, more progressive command staff came on board, finally giving Rangle and the unit’s other telework advocates the go-ahead they needed to move forward with their goal.
Today, all 37 active duty, reserve, and civilian members of the Exercise Support Division telework three days a week, making it the first Coast Guard unit to successfully and fully implement a defined telework program.
And that is causing some big waves across the organization, says Carol Swinson, who, along with Rangle and Lt. Commander Rob Carroll, helped develop the program. Today, Swinson serves as the unit’s telework coordinator.
“We get inquiries all the time, and we share our notes and everything we know about telework,” she explains, adding that telework could be of particular benefit when the Coast Guard moves its headquarters from SW Washington, D.C., into the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters building in Anacostia, Md. “Not many people have moved forward as yet. I think the Coast Guard overall is still taking baby steps, but we are happy to educate anyone who asks and will help in whatever way we can.”
Full Speed Ahead
As frustrating as the effort may have been to get a telework program under way, Rangle says that the Exercise Support Division was blessed by the fact that the its mission makes it an almost perfect fit for telework. The unit operates nine teams out of three locations-Alameda, Calif., Portsmouth, Va., and Washington, D.C. Employees spend much of their workday researching contingency plans, writing exercise scripts, and preparing documents before traveling to the field to help conduct and support the exercises.
“Our people are very task-oriented and we were used to traveling and working alone,” he explains. “We felt that telework could provide a lot of benefits for us.”
In developing their program, Rangle and his telework team were careful to adhere to the rules of the overarching Coast Guard policy while also creating unit-specific guidelines to help define, for instance, the roles and responsibilities of a telework coordinator, the metrics that would illustrate success, and consequences for abuse of telework privileges.
Uniquely, all unit employees must submit a work plan that provides a broad snapshot of the activities they will be engaged in on telework days. Rangle notes that the requirement came down from the command staff. “Initially, they wanted to know what the staff was going to be doing, literally, hour by hour, but we felt that was unreasonable,” he explains. “Once we explained it, we were able to get our commander to buy into a one-month work plan that was very general.”
As an example, Rangle’s work plan might be written up as: “Team 5, L.A./Long Beach continuity of operations exercise, commanding officer meeting, and deliverables” and include some bulleted subtasks along with expected travel dates.
Swinson says that some employees initially “kicked their heels” at the idea of having to detail their telework activities, but adherence to the request gives the commander the situational awareness he needs to feel comfortable with the work arrangement. “My response to anyone who does not want to provide this is simple: ‘If you want to telework for our division, then you have to submit the work plan,'” she states. “The irony, of course, is that our commander now requires the same type of plan even if you choose to spend your days in the office. So whether you telework or not, you have to do it.”
On the technology front, unit employees use laptops and a security token to access email, files, and other needed resources from the organizational database. Swinson notes that unit employees had long worked remotely due to their heavy travel requirements. When someone needed a file or document, they had to ask a co-worker to email the information to them. By adding the token-based access to their equipment, “we can work just as seamlessly as if we were in the office,” she says. “That’s a big win for us.”
Sailing into the Future
After nine months of planning and formal employee training, Rangle and the telework team kicked off their new telework program in September 2011 as a one-year pilot project. Initially, employees only were allowed to telework one day a week, but as the program proved itself effective, that limit was increased to two days and then three.
“We would love to do more, but the Coast Guard policy limits us to a maximum of three telework days a week,” says Rangle. Serving as the program’s first telework coordinator, Rangle developed quantifiable metrics using calculators from Telework Exchange and through employee surveys.
During the first year of the program, the unit’s employees teleworked 2,294 days, avoiding nearly 4,000 hours of commuting time and saved more than $106,000 in commuting-related expenses.
Commander Mike Dolan, branch chief of the unit’s Alameda office, says he noted an almost immediate difference in the attitudes and work product of his employees, many of whom face daily round-trip commutes of up to four hours.
“People are clearly happier,” he says. “From a leadership perspective, that is key. They are less stressed, more energetic, and more motivated, and they tell me they can really focus and get more done when they are teleworking because they do not have the kind of interruptions and distractions they deal with in the office.”
Those personal benefits came to the fore in an important way: When employees teleworked, they not only met mission expectations, they exceeded them, according to Rangle. “As a team leader, I started getting end-state deliverables from our teleworkers that had better content and fewer errors than when they worked in the office, and the feedback we have received from the commanders about our products and professionalism has been nothing but positive.”
Moreover, Swinson says that civilian retention is at 100 percent since telework was introduced.
“It is really worth it to see how much morale has improved,” she says.
Now that the Exercise Support Division’s telework program is permanently moored as a model of success, its biggest cheerleaders are hoping the rest of the Coast Guard will leverage the units experience as a catalyst and move forward with their own telework initiatives. In his analysis of the existing Coast Guard telework policy, Rangle estimates that up to 75% of the Coast Guard’s operational workforce, is eligible to telework at least occasionally.
“The example we have set demonstrates that telework is not only feasible but it is highly successful for our employees,” he says. “This does not mean that all units automatically will get on board, but we hope that by showing that you can have metrics that show results, that you can meet your mission requirements, and that your employees can have the work/life balance they need to be successful, then other groups will at least consider how telework might benefit their employees or their operations.”
All Hands on Deck
It took more than three years and a lot of hard work, but the Exercise Support Division quietly and effectively introduced a new operational paradigm to the U.S. Coast Guard tradition. They did so by adhering to the following principles.
Hold out for a hero. The Exercise Support Division’s efforts to start a telework program finally took off when new Commander Michael Sams came on board as senior leader and championed their cause.
Think pragmatism. When setting sail for new horizons, expect choppy waters. Rangle and other telework advocates remained steadfast no matter the setbacks and worked with senior leadership to meet whatever requirements helped them feel more comfortable with the changes that came with the new program. For example, the unit agreed to require each teleworker to submit a general monthly work plan; set up stringent, consequential guidelines that detailed how closely teleworkers must stay in contact with their supervisor and customers; and regularly provide the senior commander the information and metrics needed to monitor and track employee morale and productivity.
Stay positive. In a telework-resistant culture, it is important to be mindful of the impact you are likely having on others, says Carol Swinson, the unit’s telework coordinator. “We make it a point to put our best foot forward by staying upbeat, discussing our successes, and making sure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to do,” she says. “We know people are watching.”