Dispersion of Labor and the Novel Coronavirus

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The military principle of dispersion will prevent a second shutdown of American industry, prompting leaders to begin re-classifying laborers as "essential," "critical," or "necessary" to operations.   

In combat, armies spread troops and materiel across a large battlefield for the purpose of reducing vulnerability to concentrated firepower. This “dispersion of troops” does not necessarily change the likelihood of an enemy attack or prevent loss of lives, equipment or tactical advantage. Rather, by placing capabilities in multiple locations, dispersion forces the enemy to choose one of many capabilities against which it will focus the attack, thereby preserving the balance of capabilities and mitigating the risk of catastrophic losses once the attack occurs.

The concept of dispersion is not new; it has been a mainstay of operational art since the advent of the standard issue rifle and the invention of smokeless powder.

The American Civil War provides an example of this principle in action. Early in the war, most infantry commanders deployed their troops in tightly closed formations, marching brigade-sized elements across battlefields and into the enemy’s rifles and bayonets. This had been the practice of national armies since at least the eighteenth century. However, the high-volume effectiveness of modern firearms, such as the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Springfield Model 1861, proved to Union commanders that relying on such concentrated troop formations would result in enormous casualties, and accelerated the transition toward a more durable tactical paradigm.

Today, we experience a similar dispersion across a different kind of environment. 

Since March, millions of American workers have left their offices and storefronts in order to work from home. The reason, of course, is the threat of infection posed by the rapidly transmissible coronavirus. This “dispersion of labor” across urban, suburban and rural communities will not kill the virus, nor will it eliminate all possibility that homebound workers still might contract and transmit coronavirus to someone in their household or at their supermarket. But the national experiment in telework has helped mitigate the risk of large-scale outbreaks. By spreading labor capabilities over a broader geographic area, we reduce the likelihood of a massive, concentrated outbreak of sickness that would overwhelm community hospitals, shutdown businesses and exact a heavy psychological toll on the infected and uninfected alike. So far, this experiment has been a success; industry continues and many workers are happier and more productive.     

The benefits of telework extend beyond continuity of industry and an improvement in work-life balance. Telework also entails less traffic, which has, in turn, led to a statistical decline in the kind of emissions that pollute the air and damage the atmosphere. Climate scientists estimate the world will experience a 4 -7 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions as a result of the shutdown of air and ground travel. Moreover, the rapid transition to virtual conferencing and remote work caused many companies to expand and harden their virtual private network (VPN) capabilities, or even to bypass VPN in favor of cloud-based services that "surge and scale" in accordance with remote users' changing needs to store and process data. Telework simultaneously accelerated technological innovation and improved the condition of our environment.

That is not to say the transition to telework has been perfect.

As laborers vacate downtown office buildings, their employers will discover that storefronts and office spaces are no longer necessary to conduct business. Commercial leases will expire and go unrenewed; buildings that once bustled with attorneys, accountants, sales teams, clerks, and service people will go unoccupied. Landlords will seek but fail to find new tenants at comparable monthly rates. Urban tax receipts will shrink, and utility usage rates will decline. Cities that did not decline during the expansion of suburbs in the twentieth century may suffer the same fate as those cities that did.

For federal employees and contractors, already there have been difficulties in safeguarding and handling classified materials. Because classified information must be contained in secure facilities, information workers requiring access to this type of material will be disproportionately bound to the standard office space as we know it until reliable alternatives are developed and tested. And then there is also the isolation; the lack of face-to-face interaction for laborers who thrive on association and routine. The effects of dispersion on the unseen battlefield of the human psyche has taxed people as they continue to adapt to changes in their social environment.

All of this information points to the following question: Whether the national turn to telework and labor dispersion will be permanent? Probably. So long as the virus threatens American workers' health and safety, and the cost of outbreak includes business or government shutdown, information workers will continue to work remotely. To thrive in this new environment, executive leaders must quickly task-organize their workforces under the operating assumption that telework will be the "new normal" for the foreseeable future. I recommend applying the three-tiered approach outlined below.

Critical: Top-level leadership and those who directly support them; personnel engaged in complex problem-solving who need daily access to classified spaces and who interface with other critical leadership personnel; risk-takers and decision-makers. These critical staff workers will remain bound to traditional workspaces and comprise a small section of the workforce, perhaps 10 percent.

Essential: Personnel who support the critical category but do not require daily face-to-face interaction or daily access to classified information; essential personnel will split their time between office work and telework. These include some senior leadership, mid-level planners, and personnel involved in hiring, perhaps 30 percent of the workforce.

Necessary: Those personnel conducting routine and clerical operations that don’t require access to classified information, but who provide input to critical and essential functions and including workers who performed telework before the pandemic, perhaps to 60 percent of the workforce.

Implementing a policy that follows this personnel structure may not only establish an atmosphere of competition for recognition as a critical employee, but it could also have the secondary effect of identifying who is actually “essential” and “necessary” to the conduct of business. The result could be a dispersion that not only brings about long overdue telework policies to prevent a second shutdown, but also calibrates the information workforce across federal and state governments, and in private industry, for many years to come.

Able Magwitch is a U.S. government employee. His views are his own and not representative of the U.S. governement or its agencies.

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