Commanding in the digital world. A recipe for burnout?

It’s 2021. A Platoon Commander, LT Y, is in the field for a Brigade level field exercise. They are mounted in a PMV-L and are conducting a convoy task to replenish a Combat Team. They are connected to a multitude of communications instruments. They have an internal radio net they use to communicate with their Convoy, one to speak to their higher HQ, one pre-set to marry up with the dependency and a spare net for contingency communications. In front of them a screen glows and heats the cabin as they monitor their call signs on the Battle Management System (BMS). They send an instant message to the dependency to say they are ten minutes from marry up and radio back to their higher HQ to report that they have just passed a report line.

LT Y has hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment at his fingertips, all to generate a Command and Control effect. LT Y completes his task and returns to his night harbour. LT Y reflects on how his higher HQ ‘reached down’ to request a SITREP during the task as they had noticed the icons on BMS hadn’t moved in some time. The ‘reach down’ effect is one that militaries have dealt with for many years. It has increased in line with the number of sensors on the modern battlefield. Yet ‘reach down’ in a field setting is the least of this LT Y’s concerns.

LT Y returns to his barracks for some well earned down time.

It’s now Sunday morning and LT Y is woken by the sound of his phone. A message has come in at 0600; a message from LT Y’s OC; an article that might interest him. More PME. LT Y reviews the article over breakfast. A few hours later there’s a phone call from the boss, 'I need this done today'. LT Y logs on to DREAMS and gets the job done. 'That’s why we get paid service allowance' he says to himself as his log off and sends the boss a signal message to say the job is complete. The boss responds with a ‘thumbs up’.

Monday morning comes too soon and LT Y is back at work. He logs on after PT to find multiple emails that the boss has generated overnight. 'Looks like I’ll be here late tonight,' he says to himself under his breath. LT Y gets through the assigned tasks in between soldier administration, welfare spot fires and weekly governance. As he gets home, his phone pings again. The boss has sent through more PME; 'Be prepared to discuss tomorrow morning at the mess over mornos'. This is the profession of arms, commitment to service and self-sacrifice. Others would call it work life balance. LT Y reads through the case studies and goes to bed. 

The next day the discussion at the mess is surprisingly stimulating and educational. The true meaning of PME appears. The ability to verbally communicate, form logical arguments and respectfully disagree among peers develops a strong sense of camaraderie. It influences, develops and forms the team. It professionally rewards and educates. This is what separates us from civilians.

The following day the boss sends a message over lunch asking for an update on the welfare of one of the soldiers in LT Ys’ Platoon. A signal message turns into a 10 minute discussion over the phone. LT Y spends the afternoon finalising a Facebook post for the unit Facebook page about the recent field activity. The post gets sent off for final approval. LT Y goes home. After dinner, when scrolling through Facebook, he sees his post. He gives it a thumbs up and a share as is customary as an officer within the unit.

Thursday rolls around and the boss has sent out a Facebook link to their latest COVE article, expecting all the officers will read it and recount to them their favourite passages whilst exuding their absolute pleasure in having the opportunity to read such fine writing.

On Friday, not much happens but the unit has sent out some information on FORCENET about their next field activity for the awareness of families. LT Y gets an email delivered to his phone notifying him of the new message. He logs on to the FORCENET app to read it; just as Routine Orders dictate. LT Y finishes the week in one piece, but he finishes it tired. He hopes for a quiet weekend to rest and relax.

LT Y thinks back to simpler times. Specifically, the time when he was in the field with not a care in the world other than the task at hand. One job to focus on and the only sensors competing for his attention were relevant ones. The sensors concerned with the here and now. The sensors that needed attention. Now LT Y has to juggle multiple commitments and demands. He has just one device which allows his commander direct and immediate access to him at any time and location. He is required to filter and prioritise multiple feeds across multiple applications to feed an unquenchable thirst for information from his commanders. The mobile phone, more specifically the Signal messaging application, has made tasking after hours too easily accessible. We now have the ability to immediately pry into the lives of our subordinates. We know when they have received the message; when they have read the message; and use that as evidence for discipline proceedings if and when required. Our adaptation to make in barracks communication a strength, has simultaneously created a weakness. Being a Platoon Commander is nothing like it used to be. It is arguably worse and far more difficult because of the many more external stressors and no alone time ‘off the grid’.

The ADF adaptation to a COVID-19 environment, commanding over digital medium from our lounge room, has created an environment where many of us need to be ‘on’ at all times. Constantly responding to RFIs and professionally developing ourselves and each other. We have slipped into a trap whereby it is easier to task via Signal after hours rather than wait to send an email on Monday morning or deliver orders in person. We want the answer now and we have the means to get it. This has unintended consequences of generating a dangerously unsustainable tempo that burns out staff, leaving nothing left in reserve to surge when it’s needed. People need time to rest. They need time to switch off. Right now, many of us are not giving them that time. Many of us are not giving ourselves that time. A real risk in 2021 is burning out our workforce, our fighting force, before we need to use them.

So how do we balance doing our job while professionalising ourselves as officers and NCOs but ensuring we don’t overwork our staff? We have developed a new thousand mile screwdriver that instantly reaches into the personal lives of each of our subordinates.

My thoughts are this: we need to think before we send. This is a difficult thing to do but everything we pass on to our subordinates should be filtered and relevant. That is the art of passing on orders. We can’t continue to command in the same way we did during COVID. We must distinctly separate work from home where possible and allow people to regain control of their home domain after significant time working from home. We need to make a distinct effort to reduce the tempo of our own work lives and that of our subordinates. Ultimately we, as leaders, hold and control the reins of our organisation. We need to control our rate of effort and ensure there is residual capacity left to surge when required. We must take the positives from what was learnt during COVID-19, for example, flexibility in the workplace, increase in communications platforms and alternate forms of conferencing whilst discarding the negatives such as lack of work life balance, tasking after hours when not required and generation of unsustainable tempo during periods of relative low tempo.

So as a commander at any level, the next time you are sitting on your couch thinking about work, seriously think about whether or not you need the answer right away. Think before you message. It may just save someone from burning out. That someone may even be you.