Every individual is aware of the environment that best supports his or her work. This environment is constantly changing – transforming from a once traditional office workplace to an innovative, hybrid workplace embracing flexibility and a changing world. Some individuals find themselves working best in a coffee shop, listening to music while others perform best in the company of other people. Different people want different options; there are many different styles of working. In order to accommodate different working styles, encourage collaboration, incorporate new technology, and push the boundaries of science, the modern workplace is being redefined.
NASA’s official founding 60 years ago occurred during a time of incredible national industrial progress and the exploration of civil liberties. NASA’s facilities reflect a workplace focused on private industrial progress, however, and the technological secrecy of the space race. Accordingly, a structure of private office arrangements and strict work schedules developed around this culture, including an underlying layer of security – restricting the opportunity to share ideas that worked towards improving the future.
Many buildings at the centers, such as Johnson Space Center where we are based, still reflect these assumptions of previous decades. Built in the early 1960s, buildings share a common floor plan and common layout. Many employees work in tight cubicle arrangements, many supervisors work in their own private offices, and many departments only have a few conference rooms where employees can openly engage on projects. Most individuals commute to the Center from surrounding communities and work typical weekday business hours. This system has proven to be successful – several of NASA’s greatest accomplishments occurred early on in its career utilizing this workplace structure; human beings traveled to the moon and back. However, just because a system worked during one era doesn’t mean there isn’t a better option in a new era. This type of workplace lacks in innovation and restricts individuals from personalization and collaboration, putting them in a very small box before they even get to the innovation phase.
Finding the way to best utilize and pursue individual’s talents will be NASA’s next “mission.” An innovative and adaptive workplace will foster all of NASA’s future ideas and endeavors. In order to compete for the best talent in the world, NASA needs to commit to and develop a workplace that serves all kinds of individuals, projects and teams.
A modern workplace encompasses several moving parts – the location and structure of the physical environment, availability of technology, the ability to balance work and personal life, and the freedom to express ideas and work with others. Additionally, a workplace needs to provide the tools and resources to develop seemingly impossible ideas.
The location and structure of the physical environment sets the other dominos in place. Employees don’t need excessive open floor plans with ping pong tables and espresso machines – rather, they need options. New floor plans can incorporate an open concept, but it also needs to include conference rooms, individual offices, and collaboration spaces. Workplaces like this appeal to different work styles, and will support individuals to work their best. Giving employees the freedom to choose how to work and reconfigure as needed eliminates previous restrictions.
Related to issues of location and structure are practices like teleworking and virtualization. Teleworking and virtualization go hand in hand; they allow employees to work from anywhere using modern technology. This is again different for different people. For some employees, teleworking may be a necessity – specifically those who travel frequently or collect data for research. For others, teleworking may be an occasional practice like setting up an office at home – likely preferred for those who have family needs. Teleworking gives employees a better opportunity to stay engaged in work life and personal life. It directly helps employees find a balance. Utilizing teleworking and virtualization are not ideal options for everyone, but giving employees options will allow each of them to make their best contributions.
From the collaboration standpoint, implementing workplaces that incorporate open concepts, conference rooms, individual offices, and collaboration spaces will help facilitate the spread of new ideas. Johnson Space Center specifically has started to incorporate these new approaches. There are several buildings, like Mission Control, that have been redesigned to include collaboration spaces for individuals to work on big projects or learn more about other teams’ projects, as well as buildings that have been completely repurposed to include any and all of the above workplace options. Additionally, these new spaces provide tools for people to fully develop their ideas; including presentation tools like Clickshare, prototyping tools like 3D printers, and relaxation tools like games and puzzles.
Individuals flock to these new spaces and compete to reserve rooms. They are quickly becoming a sanctuary to work on projects or complete individual assignments. If NASA can redesign current workplaces and construct new workplaces that embody a flexible and collaborative environment, then it will continue to draw attention to itself and mobilize individuals to dare mighty things… every day and every project.
About the Authors
Kathryn is an intern at NASA working in Center Operations Sustainability. Kathryn attends The Ohio State University and will graduate in 2021 with a degree in Environmental Engineering. Kathryn is passionate about exploring nature and making music. She is on the leadership council for OSU’s Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship Scholars group and is the Risk Manager on the OSU Club Dodgeball team.
Nick Skytland | Nick has pioneered new ways of doing business in both government and industry for nearly two decades. He leads the Future of Work initiative at NASA and is the Agency Talent and Technology Strategist in the Talent Strategy and Engagement Division within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO).