For six months now, Army Contracting Command-Rock Island (ACC-RI) employees have experienced the challenges and benefits of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since mid-March, the workforce has adapted and thrived in order to meet their mission.
Having a solid understanding of the supported mission as well as established relationships and access to technology has been a key part of the workforce’s success during this unprecedented time. So, what about the workforce’s newest members – those who have come onboard this summer?
Danielle Miller, an ACC-RI contracting intern who started on June 8 and is part of the Intern Homeroom 4 (IHR4), said the onboarding process has been smooth with only minor hurdles that were quickly resolved.
“Being a new employee working in the virtual environment, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Miller. “Even with the town halls and meetings being held virtually, I feel very in the loop, very engaged, and fortunate to be part of such a great organization.”
Miller, a wife and mother to school-aged children, said it has been a relief being able to telework during the pandemic because she can take care of her children when she needs to and safeguard her personal health.
Both Miller and Derek Fuller, another ACC-RI IHR4 contracting intern who also joined the organization on June 8, said the biggest challenge was the initial process of obtaining Government-furnished equipment and IT access, but since then it has been smooth sailing.
ACC-RI’s Intern Homeroom branch chiefs, Lexie Bribriesco and Rachel Phelps, agreed that trying to start training employees without IT equipment and access has been the hardest part.
Another challenge is getting to know the new hires on a personal level in a virtual environment. To address this, they are utilizing Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) to hold team building events and several icebreakers.
“When we hold these engagements and ask different questions each time, that’s a way for us to get to know them a little bit better,” said Bribriesco. “Using MS Teams really changed a lot for us and allowed us to do a lot of what we need to do. I enjoy the video function that allows you to put a face to the name.”
Fuller said that while he is a person who thrives on face-to-face interaction, the way the center has utilized technology during the onboarding process to connect the group has been helpful.
“I feel like I kind of know my new co-workers and I’m sure once we are back to normal we will get to know each other better, but there are ways we stay connected, through instant messages, email, a phone call, or Teams,” said Fuller. “Everyone has been thrown into the uncertainties of this pandemic, but for ACC-RI to have adapted and done what it has done, is impressive.”
The MS Teams platform has been vital to the onboarding process for more than getting to know one another. Phelps said in the first 3-4 weeks of onboarding, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) present sessions on general government employment such as ethics, benefits overview and retirement planning, while the IHR trainers begin their introduction to government contracting.
Phelps said while some of the SME presenters were already comfortable presenting independently in MS Teams, many were not. In those situations, IHR4 trainers David Gannon and Jenni Mueller went above and beyond to provide prep sessions to get the presenters comfortable in MS Teams, and also attended the sessions to assist with sharing slides and facilitating questions.
After the orientation process, the IHR trainers – Gannon and Mueller as well as Nathan Bowers, Dave Buennig, Rebecca Jessen, Carrie Lansing, Rose Meyrer, Ashley Moore, Jessica Phillips, Kaitlin Rasdon and Anna Whitcomb – began an intensive, interactive two-week process of daily training sessions, which is known as the Mock Buy.
“The Mock Buy is where we lead them through a practice procurement from start to finish, based off a sample of an actual contract that was awarded in the homeroom last year,” said Phelps. “We recently conducted the Mock Buy process in July and my observation from that process is it transitioned really well into the virtual environment.”
Phelps said using the MS Teams chat feature during the various Mock Buy sessions allowed the interns and trainers to provide their thoughts, ask questions and give continuous feedback.
While a lot of moving from a traditional worksite to a virtual environment is based on adaptation and reacting to new challenges, Bribriesco said the experience has enhanced the team’s skills and capabilities, one of the most important being clear communication.
“Regardless of whether you’re in a virtual environment or not, communication is really important,” said Bribriesco. “Because we don’t have the luxury of just seeing someone at their desk and asking them a question, now it’s more important than ever that we are very clear in our communication and what we expect and then checking in and making sure it is still clear guidance for them.”
Additionally, Phelps said Whitcomb took the lead on updating the center’s already developed in-processing guide to a virtual guide.
“This guide, which walks interns through all of the steps that they need to take to get set up, has been used in the office, but Anna converted it to a virtual guide by updating, enhancing and clarifying a lot of the sections because we had to handle some things differently,” said Phelps. “I think that was a key tool that we have relied on to help our new employees through this process.”
Bribriesco also said the experience has given them the ability to align even more with the Business Operations Directorate, which includes the Human Resources, Systems Management, Training and Logistics teams.
“We already worked pretty closely with them, but since this is a totally new endeavor, it required us to get to know more about what they do from their end when onboarding, which has been a really great thing,” said Bribriesco.
Theresa Harrison, HR Team Lead, said the center has brought 35 contracting interns and two new non-acquisition employees onboard virtually this summer. From an HR perspective, the biggest challenge was ensuring notification of personnel action forms – also known as SF-50s – were available, as they are required before new employees can obtain their access and equipment.
“We’ve got everything down on a fine timeline, but if that SF-50 isn’t there, it can really throw off the onboarding process,” said Harrison.
Matthew Mausser, the HR specialist who has processed the IHR4 interns into the center, said there have not been many challenges from his perspective, as the bulk of his work is done over the phone or via email even when he was at the worksite. He said using MS Teams has become a huge asset to the HR Team.
For instance, he said the platform has enhanced the center’s interview processes because interview panels can now hold virtual interviews either via video or phone. Additionally, he said he has been able to do more training on employee benefits and HR Systems with the new employees.
“We’ve really embraced that virtual environment and probably provided them with even more than we have done in the past,” said Mausser.
Harrison said the HR Team’s Gains and Losses report, which the team uses to track personnel actions, has been expanded by using MS Teams, in which all team members can add their portion about onboarding to the spreadsheet in real time.
“We can see what time the employees’ Common Access Card appointment is, what time they are going to get their equipment and other important information,” said Harrison. “We recently added that capability and I think we will continue using it even if the virtual environment goes away.”
Additionally, the ACC-RI Systems Team created a new computer access process on the date of their equipment set-up, granting them full permanent access to the Government system and MS Teams, a process that used to take a week or more.
“The Systems Team has done a phenomenal job creating and sustaining this new process to successfully get our new hires up and going with computer and systems access in a short timeframe,” said Phelps. “The Systems Team has worked through the few outliers very quickly and ensured seamless communication for a successful process.”
Throughout the onboarding process, Phelps and Bribriesco said the importance of having already established the strong bonds of trust and teamwork within the IHR Team was the main factor that has led to successful virtual onboarding.
“The trainers already knew each other and they work together really well and Lexie and I work together really well,” said Phelps. “I don’t think we would have had the same result without already having that environment where we collaborate and help each other and trust each other as a team.”
Jeremy Miller, director, Business Operations Directorate, said he’s been impressed by how much all of the teams have come together to successfully onboard the center’s new employees.
“It’s great to see how we are working cross-functionally across these teams to successfully onboard the influx of personnel coming in and doing it virtually,” said Miller. “The efforts we are making now are going to lead to the ongoing vitality of the center.”