The COVID-19 pandemic travel bans and restrictions on in-person work significantly altered the way businesses operated, causing a monumental shift to virtual remote work (or telework) across the public and private sectors. Like many industries making the switch to virtual environments, government agencies and their contractor counterparts had to adopt virtual platforms to conduct the official emergency management (EM) training and exercise activities critical to maintaining Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) awareness. PHEP is especially at the forefront of national planning given the reality that disease epidemics and pandemics, in addition to a wide spectrum of natural and manmade threats and hazards, are here to stay. To help the federal government maintain PHEP, LMI’s training and exercise team strategically and effectively embraced virtual platforms to ensure continuity of operations.
Telework—Benefits and Challenges
Telework, once rare, is now a necessity. It has been a cornerstone of emergency preparedness since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Virtual platforms—such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom—have many benefits. For example, training and exercise teams appreciate conducting coordination and planning activities remotely because doing so erases travel expenses and commute times and conserves funds normally spent on hosting in-person events. Additionally, despite the detached nature of remote work, virtual platforms consciously encourage increased and constant communication among team members to stimulate productivity. More importantly, virtual environments guarantee personnel safety, reducing the occupational hazards and risks inherent in in-person training and exercise activities.
However, virtual platforms can create challenges because the productivity and success of virtual training and exercise activities are only as good as one’s home internet connection and virtual platform features. The chosen platform may simply not offer a particular function the team needs. Platform controls can also be confusing and distracting, and not all exercises may be suited to virtual delivery. Consequently, virtual platforms do not negate the importance of planning, logistics, and coordination to provide an authentic, realistic, and beneficial training and exercise experience. Teams must know how to leverage virtual platforms to meaningfully engage participants and capture key findings. Moreover, virtual platforms tend to work better for discussions-based exercises than for operations-based exercises; even as teams maneuver around logistical challenges specific to operations-based exercises, virtual platforms may still be limiting. Lastly, virtual exercises diminish the value of face-to-face opportunities to get to know peers while conducting meaningful exercises.
LMI utilized this insight to successfully conduct an internal exercise series for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office, which involved coordinating activities and information among stakeholders in response to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. This exercise demonstrated LMI’s ability to harness virtual capabilities to solve challenges and provide national security solutions.
Effective Virtual Teams—Seven Key Lessons
Even as the country may be slowly emerging from the COVID-19 virtual environment to return to offices, LMI knows there is value in employing virtual capabilities as needed to achieve client objectives. This means virtual workplace norms and etiquette are here to stay. Best practices for navigating virtual events derived from LMI’s own virtual training and exercise experience include:
- Choose the virtual platform that best suits your exercise: Determine which virtual platform—Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Adobe Connect—has features that meet your Training and Exercise objectives. Make sure your team knows how to navigate the chosen virtual platform during live virtual activities. Verify audiovisual and screen share features, recording functions, and chat and break-out group capabilities.
- Consider your virtual event’s security posture: Determine platform access, including whether to require users to enter passwords when entering the virtual room to minimize entry of uninvited guests and prevent cyberattack possibilities.
- Establish a registration process and exercise expectations early: Request participant contact information when distributing the event invitation. This allows the planning team to better tailor the live virtual exercise to the expected number of participants, verify attendance during the event, and plan for post-exercise activities. List event details as well as virtual etiquette standards to ensure participants have an understanding of virtual exercise conduct. Additionally, list your team’s contact information to answer or field participant questions.
- Develop concise and effective pre- and post-exercise documentation: Provide electronic versions (or “soft copies”) of read-ahead material so participants have the context and conceptual and operational understanding needed for your virtual exercise. Documents and other references can also be shared with participants in real-time in the chat section to facilitate discussion. Maintaining coordinated documentation of post-exercise data is also critical to informing high-level decision-making.
- Ensure adequate exercise communications and staffing: Clearly define internal staffing roles and responsibilities and establish a method of communicating during the exercise that is not visible to participants. Consider the benefits and challenges of co-locating exercise staff and making backup copies of all documentation and access links in case internet connectivity is interrupted or compromised.
- Engage participants: There are a variety of ways to keeping participants engaged, productive, and motivated throughout the exercise, including one-on-one technical supervisory support to participants, inviting participants to take part in post-exercise hotwash discussions and interviews, and encouraging participants to provide exercise feedback via email or surveys.
- Maximize virtual experiences with breakout rooms: Breakout rooms facilitate exercise control and evaluation activities by splitting participants into functional groups for exercise activities and allowing administrative teams to monitor progress. While breakout rooms do not replace the value of in-person events, they build exercise morale and inclusivity by providing professional networking opportunities and an outlet of social communication for participants to interact freely before and after the exercise.
Agility—The New Expectation
Using LMI’s approach to conducting virtual training and exercise activities, government clients can continue improving their national security and emergency management posture and operational capabilities throughout the pandemic and take advantage of virtual capabilities to become better equipped to handle a wide spectrum of threat and hazard environments. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic restructured where and how work gets done, LMI’s initiative and leadership overcame challenging circumstances to meet client program requirements. LMI will continue supporting training and exercise projects with a mix of in-person and virtual capabilities to meet the new expectations of the hybrid workplace.