A Navy command master chief records his section of an orientation brief for newcomers in March 2020.

Feb 19 2021

Virtual Onboarding Kept New Employees Moving into Defense Agencies, DHS

Collaboration tools connected workers with their colleagues in a work-from-home environment.

On Kathleen Clark’s first day on the job with the Defense Digital Service communication team, her computer arrived in the mail with a complete schedule and training modules to get her up to speed on the tools she would use in her work.

“I had everything I needed,” recalls Clark, a digital service expert in communications.

DDS, which has 80 employees, has onboarded 40 workers remotely through the pandemic as of February. The team got the process down so smoothly that it wound up helping Washington Headquarters Services, DOD’s personnel office, to virtually onboard more than 1,200 new employees throughout the agency.

DDS provided the WHS Personnel Office with computers, software licenses and training via online collaboration tools so that the WHS personnel office could do things like administer the oath of office and required paperwork in an entirely virtual environment, explains DDS Deputy Director Katie Olson.

“They have continued to use them, and not only for virtual onboarding. They’re also starting to get comfortable with them in everyday work,” she adds. “An interesting aspect of the pandemic has been that it forces the traditional offices to move into the 21st century and adopt some of the technology.”

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Virtual Tools Gave a Boost to Agency Culture, Morale

DDS was a distributed team long before the coronavirus hit, with members in Australia, Paris and three U.S. time zones. But with the increase in remote work through the pandemic, Olson has been more deliberate about fostering a strong culture within the agency.

The agency has hosted virtual happy hours, created a buddy system pairing new and existing employees and held a virtual offsite meeting in the fall, attended by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who serves on the DOD Defense Innovation Board.

“It can be very hard to work with team members you’ve never met in person,” Olson says. “My hope is that we’ll actually come out of the pandemic stronger as a team because we were forced to communicate in a very deliberate, intentional and clear way.”

The Department of Homeland Security has also been hiring throughout the pandemic and, out of necessity, has had to fine-tune its virtual onboarding process. The department never shut down, so it had to provide flexibility to workers because of their personal circumstances as well as the different regulations in their municipalities.

DHS Enables Flexibility for Remote Workers

Deciding when or if workers need to return to the office is a local decision that managers will make based on a variety of factors, including availability of childcare, transportation, ability to social distance within an office space and virus caseloads, explains DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey.

“A one-size-fits-all posture doesn’t work for us,” she adds. “We have encouraged — and will continue to encourage — maximum flexibility for employees.”

If the department were to support virtual positions into the future, it could help with recruitment, says former DHS CIO Karen S. Evans. She previously ran the U.S. Cyber Challenge, a DHS recruitment initiative, and the No. 1 question from participants was whether they could work remotely.

“My personal belief is that if we clearly define the outcomes for the employees to achieve, it doesn’t matter if they work at home or come into the office,” she says. “What the pandemic did was accelerate the way that the federal government looks at telework, which I think is a wonderful thing.”

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Geoffrey P. Barham/U.S. Navy