While MITRE was learning about the coronavirus and its effects on the world, our workforce was also demonstrating adaptability and resilience.
The news of COVID-19 was seeping out from Asia and Europe. And our experts were on it.
“MITRE has been closely monitoring the coronavirus situation carefully, as it affects the health and well-being of our employees, our sponsors, and the nation. We are concerned about the health and safety of our employees and their families around the world.”
With that Jan. 28, 2020, message from Chief Technology and Medical Officer Jay Schnitzer, MITRE launched our organizational response to a nascent health emergency.
Our mission was clear. Take care of our employees and their families and help our country counter this significant threat.
As the virus expanded into a global crisis, we applied our public health and technology expertise to combat the infection. That’s not surprising—it’s the kind of work we do. Early on, we joined with the Mayo Clinic to create and manage the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition. This collaboration of more than 1,000 private sector organizations informs government and industry response to the pandemic.
Within MITRE, we adjusted to the fluid environment and remained committed to our guiding principle that the health and safety of our employees, their families, and our communities comes first. We quickly pivoted 95 percent of our staff to working remotely. We proactively halted all business travel and transitioned immediately from in-person conferences and presentations to virtual ones. (One team showed how to operate with speed and risk-taking, organizing a successful virtual event with only two weeks’ lead time).
We also launched an “idea challenge” to draw on a broad range of our staff’s capabilities. We took our collective expertise—in areas such as systems engineering, IT, modeling and simulation, and data analytics—to find solutions that could be used immediately.
Within weeks, the challenge received over 200 ideas, and we funded 21 of them. Among the winners: testing and validating the effectiveness of DIY masks and respirators and safely navigating new technologies that enable remote work and telehealth appointments.
"I feel privileged to work at MITRE," says Josh Stadlan, one of the COVID-19 idea challenge submitters. "We were encouraged to collaborate and find practical solutions that could help right away."
“We took many steps to manage the crisis,” says Jason Providakes, MITRE president and CEO. “The steps were not easy. The pandemic has challenged us to adapt and innovate quickly, and to become part of the solution. I’m proud of the leadership role we’ve taken with the Coalition, our commitment to seamlessly deliver on our sponsor mission needs, and our ability to keep our people safe.”
“I Have Flexibility to Take Care of My Family”
“This crisis has required us to adapt and take risks – and ensure our people and their families were safe,” says Kathleen P. Federico, senior vice president and chief people and corporate strategy officer. “We needed to make decisions quickly, anticipate challenges, and be transparent about our approach. We know that it’s how MITRE will emerge from this crisis a stronger, more resilient organization.”
Among the first changes: the activation of a rapid-response team to address employee and workplace issues related to COVID-19. The team ensured that employees had the resources, technology, and guidance needed to provide uninterrupted support to our sponsors. Through emails and live, virtual briefings, MITRE leadership shared data and context about the virus and its effects on employees, their families, and the workplace. A cross-divisional team began identifying areas of potential concern and implementing solutions.
“One of the factors that’s always made MITRE a great place to work is our emphasis on work-life balance. That commitment has never been more important than this year,” says Christina Orfanos, vice president, HR talent experience, and total rewards.
“Through this crisis, we’ve gone to great lengths to help our colleagues manage the change as it affects their work and their home life,” she says. “The MITRE community includes working parents with children at home, single employees managing the isolation of social distancing, coping with grief of having lost a loved one to the disease, or even dealing with the anxiety about contracting coronavirus themselves.”
"As a parent of school age children who were suddenly transitioning to remote learning, MITRE’s early decision to maximize remote work was a huge relief," says Jenine Patterson, a systems engineer. "It took one worry off the table. I had the flexibility I needed to take care of my family and get my work done."
Orfanos adds, “Everyone is responding to this challenge in their own way. We are committed to helping them through and showing grace and respect when they need support.”
And our employees responded, offering not only empathy to their colleagues and friends, but giving time and talent to their communities. For example, Tobin Bergin-Hill gave the gift of music to seniors at a Virginia high school. And Dale Swanson flew solo across the country to deliver life-saving personal protective equipment to the Navajo Nation—just two of many such acts of generosity.
Adapting to a New Innovation Environment
Some of our early actions are now nearly universal practices. To facilitate better communication and collaboration in our new remote work environment, MITRE distributed iPhones to nearly 5,000 full- and part-time staff who didn’t already have them. As school districts transitioned to remote learning, we gave employees a flexible scheduling option to help balance work and family responsibilities. We expanded our benefits offerings to include access to the CARE.com network of caregivers for children, elders, and others, as well as tutors and errand runners. And a weekly CEO webcast has become “must-see TV.”
We even provided free masks to everyone twice (more than 8,000 mailed to homes—a logistical feat), with an option to purchase extras for friends and family at a discounted rate.
We established ways to monitor the health of those who entered our workspaces, such as those working in classified facilities. There are temperature checks and mandatory mask-wearing, except when alone in an office. There are free meals-to-go from the cafeteria and self-service snacks from well-stocked fridges.
But because this pandemic is far from over, we’ve instituted a phased return-to-office approach that will likely extend beyond early 2021, and we are accelerating innovation in where and how we work. This “new normal” won’t change until our experts deem it safe for more people to gather in large numbers.
And through it all, we have continued to successfully carry out our mission of solving problems for a safer world – all while learning about COVID from our involvement with the Healthcare Coalition and other pandemic-related efforts.
“We can apply all of this knowledge now and in the future,” Providakes says. “But we have also learned a great deal about our workforce and what they can achieve in times of stress and uncertainty. It’s an honor to lead them.”
—by Molly Manchenton and Kay Upham