EXCLUSIVE: NASA implements initiatives to engage future workforce


Employee Benefits Connect 2018: Federal space organisation National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has implemented a range of workforce planning initiatives to ensure the organisation is fit for the future.

Delivering the opening keynote address at Employee Benefits Connect 2018, Elizabeth Kolmstetter, director, workforce engagement division at NASA, explained how the organisation conducted research on its past approaches to workforce planning in order to pinpoint potential gaps and areas for development that NASA could focus on to ensure it would be able to progress into the future and keep pace with the evolving workplace.

“One of the things we do is use a very reflective approach in our workforce programme, because we seek to understand our history; what’s working well, what doesn’t work so well, what’s gotten us to this point. We really believe we can future forward lean into what’s going to change, what do we need to do, is this working for us, why was this working, what wasn’t working and make sure that we’re addressing that in our future,” she said.

NASA’s analysis discovered that new employees were not being effectively engaged with the organisation and its over-arching objectives. To address this, a group of new starters volunteered to compile a new programme specifically targeted at this population, to connect and engage new staff with NASA. The resulting programme is centred around an employee passport, which employees receive 30 days before their first day. The passport, which is also available for different seniority levels, helps employees to track their career journey with NASA and demonstrates how individuals form part of the organisation’s fabric and culture.

Kolmstetter said: “[Employees are] on a journey, a career journey, hopefully with us for a long time. And so [employees] are going to capture experiences and these are going to help [them] develop and connect to our people and to our mission.”

The employee passports also feature a progression timeline. After an employee has been with the business for two years, they then develop to act as mentors or buddies for new starters just receiving their first employee passport.

At the other end of the career spectrum, NASA’s low turnover rate of 4% meant that developing and progressing a new talent pipeline was also a challenge. Approximately 40% of its workforce is eligible to retire, however, these employees remain within the business. To address this, NASA has introduced three programmes to encourage senior employees to consider different forms of retirement. It first implemented a phased retirement programme in 2015 to facilitate a part-time work, part-time retirement arrangement for up to two years before full retirement. Employees on this programme undertake mentoring opportunities, teach seminars and perform training for younger staff.

Second, NASA’s emeritus programme allows its retirees to come back to work on an unpaid, voluntary basis in order to contribute to projects and tasks they have an interest in. These retirees will still have a desk and computer and are able to return on a very flexible basis. Finally, NASA is developing a Leave a Legacy programme. This will enable senior employees to come out of their normal job role to work on a special, prestigious project for up to two years with the understanding that they will consider retirement once the project was completed.

“I can’t bring in a new pipeline, new talent because we only have so much budget to fund a workforce, so we are starting to say how can we help folks get a move on to retirement and give back what they want in a way that they feel that they’re important and their experiences are giving back,” added Kolmstetter.

Another key initiative that NASA has rolled out is flexible-working initiative Work From Anywhere (WFA). This allows employees the freedom to work at different times from either one of NASA’s 10 US-based operating sites or from other locations, such as working from home or cafes. WFA was the result of a three-month project called Make Anywhere a Remote Site (Mars), which conducted a one-month trial of banning employees from working in the office. Staff were encouraged to work virtually wherever they saw fit.

The Work From Anywhere initiative has enabled the organisation to be more timely on its project work, because timelines are not delayed by waiting for face-to-face meetings. She said: “Waiting for people to convene in person is really now out of date. Every meeting has at least a conference call, but most [have] video capability so we expect there to be some of these people not physically present.”

Kolmstetter also explained the challenge of having employees working in technical roles promoted into leadership positions, because these employees may not have the necessary people and leadership skills to create an inspiring environment for staff working under them. “Just having the competencies doesn’t mean the person is applying them and exciting the workforce and creating the environment that brings out the best, the most potential of their employees. If [leaders are not] applying those competencies in a productive way, in a way that excites and invigorates and inspires, then [leaders] could be in a whole world of hurt because [the] leader is creating perhaps a frustrating, or a disengaging or an isolating work environment. Maybe they don’t mean to, but they might be,” Kolmstetter said.

To combat this, NASA has an Environment Matters 360 employee survey, which asks employees and executives about the environment that they work in.

The results from the Environment Matters 360 survey can then be fed into leadership development training, which forms part of NASA’s Super-vision programme. This invests in people supervision training, and ensures that this skill set is treated as a discipline in the same way that technical skills would be practiced and developed. “What if we treat supervision as discipline? What if we put as much effort into keeping our skills current as supervisors, as leaders, as we do with our technical skills? And that has been a paradigm shift,” added Kolmstetter.

NASA has also embraced using individuals outside of the organisation to provide data for project work, through NASA-designed apps such as Global Observer. The organisation has also taken advantage of the blending between work and home boundaries to use evening social events to gather feedback from employees on the future of work and what individuals are looking for. NASA has sought to move from a culture of safety into one of being risk tolerant, to help encourage innovation. It has done this by introducing awards that celebrate innovation failures, and explores what can be learnt from these experiences.

Kolmstetter concluded: “Without our people, we wouldn’t achieve anything. We’re very, very much focused on our people, and our culture of innovation, collaboration and exploration.

“Use communications to connect. Talk about connecting our people to each other and to our mission. Be reflective; think about [the] organisation’s past and the people who have come before to understand and think about the future. Keep exploring.”