NASA’s future of work plan starts with the ‘experimental phase’

Like most scientific studies, the best ones start with a trial period, an experimental phase, where patterns emerge and data and feedback is collected.

That’s how NASA is approaching its next great experiment, determining the future of work at the agency.

The Biden administration gave agencies until mid-July to finalize workplace reentry plans and determine how it’ll incorporate the lessons they’ve learned about telework and remote work during the pandemic into their workforce plans.

“More recently we’ve declared that we’re going to treat, really almost starting now and until some point probably in the middle of next year, as kind of an experimental phase,” Jane Datta, NASA’s chief human capital officer, said in an interview with Federal News Network.

Jane Datta, NASA’s Chief Human Capital Officer
(Credits: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

For NASA, that means approaching each employee’s work arrangement with a “clean slate,” drawing on their experiences from the last 18 months, their job requirements and home and family situations.

“We think that there are lots and lots of reasons why it’s great to be able to — where it makes sense — support employees to be able to decide where they want to live that gives them the support structures that they need or allows them to get a better cost of living so that they can stay with NASA and it makes sense for them financially, and every other reason under the sun,” Datta said. “On the other hand, we also need to pay attention to the work requirements themselves. In all of this supervisors have the ability to say yes or no. But the idea is that we are not anchoring decisions about where and how and when an employee works based solely on supervisors’ individual preference.”

Employees are discussing their options — whether that’s teleworking from their home full-time, part-time or an ad-hoc basis, or working from a NASA facility with regularity — with their supervisors now.

From there, NASA will see what work patterns emerge and what arrangements are productive ones,  which will then inform eventual decisions on office space, IT and other investments, Datta said.

“[We’re] not pre-supposing that but instead giving ourselves an opportunity to find out what works and what doesn’t work,” she said. “That way we can figure out in the middle of next year — if we get there and it looks like that’s a good point at which to start looking at investment and divestment decisions — what we need in the way of fixed infrastructure and what we need in the way of IT.”

It’s a big shift for NASA, especially in accepting the concept of remote work, where employees can live far away from their duty station and work virtually without the expectation that they visit their offices regularly.

That approach, Datta said, will broaden NASA’s recruiting base and help it better compete for top scientific talent.

“We have been hiring all through the pandemic. I don’t think that we’ve really pivoted our thinking to hire from anywhere, but that’s where we’re going,” she said. “We’ve certainly engaged thousands of interns who have not come on site, and their internships have really been from wherever they were, not near any of our centers. We also have hired employees who may intend to relocate but haven’t yet.”

Some existing NASA employees have temporarily or permanently relocated during the pandemic, and the agency has been working through those arrangements on a case-by-case basis. Datta said she anticipates some NASA employees may gradually relocate, but the shift will be slower. Far more employees will likely stay and telework within commuting distance of their offices, she said.

A big mentality shift for supervisors

Supervisors have the power to approve or deny employee work arrangements, but as both NASA and the Office of Personnel Management have encouraged, they’re supposed to put aside their individual preferences.

“We have a wonderful workforce. Many of them have a lot of service at NASA,” Datta said. “They’re very committed to NASA and the values and practices that we’ve always had. That is actually a very good thing. It does, however, make a shift, a cultural shift, a little bit more challenging than it would be for an organization where those norms are not so settled.”

To socialize those changes with supervisors, NASA has been releasing guidance and is making HR consultants available to managers. The agency’s top leaders have also been helpful in communicating the goals of the new policy changes to managers and the broader workforce, Datta said.

“If an employee feels that they’re not being understood, then there’s an appeals process which just leverages the kinds of appeals processes we have for everything else,” she said. “We hope that will both help for cases where that’s necessary and also that we won’t need to go there, that we’ll actually get good communication and dialogue.

Not every NASA engineer or human capital specialist, as an example, may have the same work setup, another outcome of the agency’s approach that might take some getting used to.

“I have folks in my organization whose homes do not lend themselves to being good workplaces. They’ve found a way to cope over the last year-and-a-half, but really that is not satisfactory for the long-run,” Datta said. “Even if I’m encouraging a lean-forward approach, which means a highly virtual approach, that doesn’t mean that everybody on my staff is going to be all virtual all the time. It’s going to be a combination of what they need and what we need and working it out, as long as everyone has the same opportunity for those choices and dialogues.”

A chance to ‘democratize’ training and professional development

The virtual environment is also giving NASA employees more access to training, conferences and other events that previously would have consumed more travel, money and time.

It’s opened up new avenues for longer-term professional development and rotational opportunities for NASA employees as well, Datta said.

“You can do many more of those much more easily with virtual assignments,” she said. “It pushes open the doors of opportunity to our workforce to consider projects, rotations, details [and] other kinds of experiential learning opportunities that might not ever have been possible or thought of or considered before.”

Since about 94% of the workforce stays at the agency within each given year, NASA places a premium on finding details and other developmental assignments for employees, Datta said. Some opportunities allow employees to move up the career ladder; others give them a chance to learn about another part of the agency or improve their leadership skills.

The agency has an internal talent marketplace tool, where employees can find detail assignments, rotations and opportunities to work on other projects.

“What we’ve noticed is that in this time of the pandemic where most of us are virtual, that the utilization of that has really increased significantly, and we’ve seen a lot more movement of people, [with] different types of assignments that are hosted in different locations,” Datta said of NASA’s talent marketplace tool. “It’s really contributing to a positive employee-development process.”

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