Remote work has gone from "nice to have” to “must do” in a matter of days for many, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Historically, the federal government and especially the Department of Defense has been reluctant to embrace remote work. Has time for change arrived?


While serving in the United States Navy, I made experimenting with remote work a priority of mine. Here’s what I learned.

One of our valued civilian teammates made a pitch (through the chain of command, of course) that he and his family wanted to relocate from Suffolk, VA to Northern California. Would it be possible, he asked, to stay on the team?

We have some amazing people within our federal civilian workforce, Sam was one of them. Professionals like him have a tremendous amount of opportunities in the private sector. During my last command tour, we went through a spell where a few of our valued civilian teammates were lured away by private companies.

They loved our mission and were satisfied with their salary. What they were missing were other attributes the DoD was (and largely is) not yet ready to truly embrace.


We didn’t want to lose Sam. He was a critical contributor to our team. Sam was a little reluctant to share his request at first, and was grateful to hear that we were willing to give it due consideration.

Priding ourselves in being a true 21st century employer, we started digging deep. We researched the DoD’s extremely prescriptive telework policy, assessed it’s spirit more than its letter, and sprinkled in a little creative compliance, but compliance nonetheless.

And we made it work. Sam moved to California with his family, and to this day remains a valued member of the same command. In fact, I’d go so far to say that the DoD is getting more out of this arrangement than Sam.

More leaders are open to the idea of accommodating a remote workforce, more teammates are desiring the freedom that accompanies turning “work” into something they do, and not a place they go.

Emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic can make remote work mandatory at times.

How did Sam, our team, and I make it happen? Regardless of the reason you may be heading down this path, you will learn plenty as you go.

Here are some of the lessons Sam and I have learned during our journey from various security standpoints:

  • Job Security: Job security is about trust and confidence. Seniors must trust their juniors and have confidence in their ability to execute their role from afar, often asynchronously. At the same time, juniors must trust that their seniors are advocating on their behalf when necessary and be confident that they are receiving appropriate communications. Psychological safety is critically important to all teammates. Everyone must take the extra steps necessary to ensure no one is distracted by fear of losing their job or missing out on impromptu opportunities to contribute. Those chance encounters in the hallway or unprompted side-bars after a meeting are no longer, so contributing beyond that which you are tasked takes deliberate effort.
  • Operational Security (OPSEC): Life in a DoD building is filled with constant reminders that “loose lips sink ships,” and we are surrounded by teammates who share our need to know. Life at home, in a coffee shop, or by the pool has many benefits but working in an environment where you need not think about being overheard by individuals without clearance or a need to know is not one of them. It’s easy to forget that Alexa, your family members, or others sharing your space are in earshot as you discuss Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) information, Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI), or what we know as Essential Elements of Friendly Information (EEFI). Shredders, OPSEC posters, EEFI lists, and keen awareness of who may be within earshot are likely not part of your portable office. Poor OPSEC may be the quickest way to lose remote work privileges and undermine all the good you and your team are doing.
  • Physical Security: Most of us take physical security at our home seriously. We take the necessary precautions to keep our loved ones and personal belongings safe. So when working from home, there aren’t too many extra precautions that we need to take. That said, a lock on our office door, password-protecting our screensavers, and a designated cabinet to store our laptop and papers after cleaning our desk each day proved to be responsible additional steps for Sam and me that we now consider best practices.
  • Cyber Security (and collaboration tools): Most organizations have a small pool of properly configured laptops to accommodate travelers and approved teleworkers. What they don’t normally include is access to the collaboration tools that aren’t always necessary when partnering with a coworker a few cubicles over. Examples are apps and services such as Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom. The CISO will need to consider the merits of approving new collaboration tools to enhance productivity, facilitate communication across the team, and improve mission effectiveness. For those organizations that don’t have a pool of laptops or need to accommodate a sudden increase in remote workers, a web browser isolation solution such as Authentic8’s Silo for Safe Access enables you to separate the things you care about (your enterprise network) from the things you cannot trust (personal laptops).

Current events are giving more people reason to see value in remote work. I am certain that one of the most significant lessons for leaders across the public and private sectors will be that they need to equip all employees with the ability to work remotely when the situation requires it.

Personally, I’ve never thought about the possibility of our current situation before. Remote work simply made sense to me from a pure productivity, recruitment, and retention perspective.

Now more leaders, including those who live in the stale corridors of the Pentagon, are beginning to understand that the work environment can be the most powerful recruitment and retention tool there is.

The current push to facilitate remote working has grabbed the attention of many. Will it become an enduring part of how everyone executes their mission very soon?

I certainly hope so, thinking of my former teammates and those who join them, in uniform or on the civilian side. There are many things I enjoyed throughout my DoD tenure, and there are many things that my time in uniform makes me appreciate about my current employer. The freedom to work both remotely and asynchronously is at the top of that latter list.

Never before have I been this productive, enjoyed a truly balanced family/work life, and felt so trusted. I look forward to the day when more of my DoD teammates will feel the same. We like to say, “People are our greatest assets,” as we contemplate how best to recruit and retain the amazing talent we are lucky enough to employ.

The reality is that if you aren’t embracing remote work, you aren’t going to attract and retain the talent that you need - including in the federal government and the U.S. military. As Simon Sinek has taught many, the decision to join a movement may “Start with Why” but the decision to stay a part of it Ends with How… -  how work is done.

Make work a thing you and your team members do, not a place you go. Or risk watching them go…

About the Author

Sean Heritage
Sean Heritage

Sean is Head of Platform Adoption (Federal). As a career naval officer, he led defensive cyber operations, guided the development of the cyber workforce, and helped create the Defense Innovation Unit.