Return to work.

Return to the office.

Return to normal.

The national headlines, industry events and casual conversations with colleagues reinforce the notion that we will return to the workplace as we left it in 2020. In the defense industry, we should not accept this as inevitable. The work paradigm has shifted, and we have an important opportunity to go forward, not backward. We must take advantage of what we have learned and of changing attitudes and perceptions of what the workplace of the future is.

The past 18 months have taught us that the defense workforce is adaptable, productive and collaborative in a virtual environment. We need to reflect on the successes we’ve achieved in quickly accelerating to telework by reframing the culture of the defense industry and resetting for the future of work.

For decades, the defense-industrial base has struggled to recruit and retain top technology talent that is the lifeblood of keeping America’s national security competitive. In January 2020, before offices across the United States were shuttered, the National Defense Industrial Association released “Vital Signs 2020: The Health and Readiness of the Defense Industrial Base” and gave industry a failing score — a “D” in defense industry production related to skilled labor, goods and services, and raw materials used to develop end products and services for the Department of Defense.

The talent challenges of the defense-industrial base are well documented and made even more complex by requirements to be on or near military installations.

The need for a skilled, ready defense workforce has never been greater. In light of the evolving geopolitics and China’s continued investment in STEM education as well as the evolution of its military-civil national security posture, now is the time to rethink how we can attract, develop and retain top talent in the industrial base.

We are poised to update our workplace norms in a post-pandemic world. We know our talent is eager for the opportunity to engage in hybrid work environments that provide flexibility for work-life balance and a chance to evolve workplace culture to retain the technology tools that have become ubiquitous to many teleworkers. In a recent Booz Allen Hamilton survey, 82 percent of our colleagues indicated a flexible work schedule is the most appealing aspect of the future of work.

Beyond our current workforce, a more flexible, virtual future for the industrial base allows us to envision a talent pool beyond traditional military hubs to create more capacity to pull in top STEM talent nationwide. We’ve seen firsthand the power of a distributed workforce during virtual technology demos, which save travel time and dollars.

Recent memos from the Air Force and Navy indicating that their workforce will be 50 percent work-from-home indefinitely provide a model for how the broader defense community can adopt progressive approaches that will provide greater flexibility to the workforce.

As leaders across industry and government begin to reset and reframe the future of work for the defense-industrial base, we would offer the following observations from our own experience and those we’ve heard from across industry:

First, leaders must model the way. Military, civilian and industry leaders must set the conditions for hybrid work, signaling to their workforce a priority on flexibility, engaging colleagues both in the office and in telework, and using in-person collaboration time more meaningfully.

On the topic of meaningful collaboration, leaders must reset how they use in-person engagement. In pre-pandemic days, cubes and offices near bases and installations were sometimes a stream of meetings better handled over emails. This status quo will no longer work; we need refreshed approaches to in-person collaboration.

Second, leaders have an important opportunity to balance collaboration between those in the office and those working virtually to create an inclusive environment and drive toward meetings with greater purpose and productivity.

Finally, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Classified spaces, laboratories and watch-center work will always require in-person elements. But consider how the government, the military and contractors at these facilities may be afforded more flexibility — whether through flexible work arrangements or compressed days. Given the transformational moment we are in, this may also be a time to consider and review what work must be conducted at classified facilities and what may be conducted remotely.

Now is the time. Leaders from industry and the Department of Defense must reset and reframe the future of work for the defense-industrial base. The ability to attract and retain the best and brightest talent in national security technology today and in the future depends on it.

Karen Dahut is the executive vice president and global defense group lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, where retired U.S. Army Gen. Dennis Via is the executive vice president and a leader in the firm’s Joint Combat Command business and Aimee George Leary is executive vice president and talent lead.

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