ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - The threat of COVID-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus, has changed common practices within the Army. Many new requirements have been implemented to protect Soldiers, such as social distancing, the wearing of masks, and restrictions on travel. Soldiers serving at First Army Headquarters have not been immune to the shift, and have had to become creative maintaining readiness while keeping First Army Soldiers safe.
To protect the force, First Army instituted a liberal telework policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having nearly two-thirds of the workforce at home presented some initial challenges. Those challenges have been addressed and First Army has settled into a “new normal.”
While there were some initial adjustments in the beginning, mostly related to technology, Capt. Alexander Harmon, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, First Army, said the unit has adapted well to the new dynamics.
“We’re doing a very good job in terms of our battle rhythm and making sure we can still complete the mission despite this changed environment,” he said.
According to Harmon, the biggest initial difficulty related to accountability.
In some cases, HHD had to get accurate status reports despite having entire directorates on telework status.
“When this whole pandemic started, we had to build a way to maintain accurate accountability and communication with personnel despite the majority of them not being in the building,” Harmon said. “After about the first three weeks of standing up our COVID response cell, we got into a battle rhythm that we could maintain.”
Harmon considers accessibility and understanding the mission as two keys to successful teleworking.
“You’re next to your phone, you have situational awareness of your job, you’re on your computer and essentially, you do exactly what you do at work but you’re doing it at home,” he said.
Harmon added that the situation reiterated the critical role technology plays in the modern world.
“It’s easy in peacetime or a non-pandemic time to get complacent with a lot of the systems that we have in place,” he said. “However, when hardship hits, you realize how important they are to be able to provide accurate, actionable information to your leadership.”
He praised the response of the First Army Soldiers and civilians to the situation.
“They are being able to adapt to an environment the Army has not seen since 1918,” Harmon said. “They are doing it with a great attitude and a smile on their face and I really appreciate being a part of this headquarters.”
Elliott Rogers, the deputy for First Army Current Plans and Operations deputy, also said his directorate has managed to adapt.
“We’ve got teleconference lines, business Skype, and other virtual tools,” he said. “Our goal was to continue doing routine things routinely. We didn’t want to stop getting after our mission.”
Conducting business virtually, Rogers said, allowed First Army Soldiers and civilians to do their jobs while remaining safe.
“There’s a force protection aspect, so the advantage is that we can continue to accomplish our mission and not put personnel and their families at risk,” he said. “We require supervisors to do check-ins. We don’t want anybody sitting at home, especially our geographical bachelors and the at-risk folks, and not have someone checking in on them.”
While the directorate has adjusted, Rogers missed the in-person contact.
“We consider ourselves a family,” Rogers said of his co-workers. “I’m used to coming to work every day and seeing folks and doing a face-to-face check-in and not having that is the hardest part,” he said.
All in all, though, the transition has been successful.
“There was an adjustment period,” Rogers said. “When you’re working with someone face-to-face on a project, it makes it a lot easier. Now, we have to coordinate time to do the teleconferences so it took us a minute to get it going. But once we did, it’s been working out great.”
It also sets First Army up for success if a similar situation arose later.
“In any contingency, there’s going to be an increase to our force protection posture and it’s going to limit the number of persons who have access to the installation,” Rogers said. “We’ve been seeing ways we can accomplish the mission in the event of contingency or increased force protection condition.”
Playing one of the most crucial roles in getting telework up and running were the Soldiers and Civilians of the Information Management Directorate. Jeff Blankchaffin, chief of the directorate’s Information Services Division, said a sudden and dramatic increase in telework presented some obstacles to overcome.
“The biggest challenge had been getting everybody up on the collaborative tools like Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Defense Collaboration Services and making sure everybody had the right equipment like speakers and microphones and everything that they need.”
But within a few days, Members of the Directorate had their First Army teammates fully connected.
“We’re at a steady state right now. Everybody seems to be working,” Blankchaffin said. “I don’t get any reports of anybody having issues with those tools anymore.”
While there had initially been a problem with an overloaded network, Blankchaffin said the Rock Island Arsenal Network Enterprise Center doubled its Virtual Private Network capabilities, so that is no longer an issue, and the capabilities are adequate for the telework being done.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of being prepared, he added.
“The biggest lesson learned is to get more practice with this kind of situation with all users,” Blankchaffin said. “Have everybody bring their laptop home, make sure their VPN works, make sure all the tools that they need work, and test those regularly instead of just waiting until something hits.”
Teresa Sullivan, a management analyst, is one of the many First Army teleworkers. While she misses the in-person contact with co-workers, Sullivan has found that teleworking has made her more productive and brought a boost in morale.
“I am currently having no issues since VPN is working. I am really enjoying teleworking. It was easy to adapt to. I have a spare bedroom which is our home office. I can do everything I do in the office, out of my home,” she said. “Most days I am up and ready to log in on my computer before my start time.
For Sullivan, the transition to telework has been a smooth one.