The Future of Work

Over the past six decades, NASA has attracted relentless adventurers and brilliant explorers who have a passion to explore the unknown for the benefit of humanity. This workforce has achieved the impossible, from the unforgettable feats of the space race and Mars rovers, to building of the International Space Station and the development of new technology that has ushered unparalleled discoveries. As we contemplate the next 60 years, NASA recognizes that today’s environment is significantly different from its past decades of success. Join us in this series as we explore the disruptors driving the Future of Work and provide insights our Future of Work study.  Each week we will publish a new post from our study and invite your feedback.  You can view the past posts by clicking any of the links below or simply scrolling down:

Future of Work – An Introduction
The Four Meta Forces – Mission, People, Technology and Place
Environment and Culture
The Future of Work Framework
Designing for Agility, Focusing on Impact
Redesigning for the future: the age of impact
Redefining Talent
The Future of the No-Collar Workforce
Learning and Developing for a Lifetime
Changing Attitudes Toward Learning & Development
Developing Cross-Generational Talent
What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?
Embracing Modern Workspaces and Collaboration
The Changing Office Space
Why I Gave NASA A Second Chance
Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability
Digital Transformation
Unleashing Algorithms, Analytics, AI and Automation
Conclusions for the Future of Work
A Marketplace for Talent

Valuing Sharing and Security

At the intersection of the forces of technology and place is NASA’s need to architect and implement secure sharing in a data-first organization. The ability of organizations to leverage data to drive insights to action is the fuel of the future. And yet data access is often extremely limited due to underlying tensions between sharing and security, role-defined versus open data, and a decentralized operating model. As more work is conducted anywhere and anytime, protecting sensitive data and keeping systems secure is critical. At the same time, ensuring the ability to share information via dashboards, portals, and online reports, as well as offering self-service options, are just as vital.


As the Presidential Management Agenda observed, the use of data is transforming society, business, and the economy. As more work is conducted virtually, keeping sensitive data and systems secure, sharing information, and offering self-service options will be critical to ushering in a modern government. Technology modernization initiatives and data access are the backbone to improving accountability to taxpayers and achieving mission results.

Further, there is a well-known tension in government: the requirement for protection and security competes with the mandate for openness and accessibility. For the emerging generation of knowledge workers, this tension manifests itself when these workers are challenged to access the data needed to inform decision-making. As a consequence, relevant information is siloed in highly insulated systems that only few can access and usable self-service options for sharing data securely do not exist or are not ace universally available.


Striking a balance between data sharing and security remains an organizational strain and is particularly difficult for NASA. The Agency requires an integrated approach to using data to deliver on mission goals, serve customers, and steward resources. The tension between sharing and secure solutions, combined with increasing self-service demands, creates a unique challenge in government, where budgets and expertise are often more limited than in the private sector.


As NASA seeks to manage tensions and steer toward more self-service options, the Agency must design and implement an integrated workforce data management strategy that defines a common data architecture to allow for the secure integration and sharing of data, inclusive of “data-first” standards and practices. The strategy requires the development of shared standards and policies around basic issues like password strength, multi-factor authentication, social engineering, and network security to inform its workforce of cybersecurity risks. NASA may consider moving towards a risk-based approach for securing systems that places emphasis on data-level protections and that fully leverages modern virtualized technologies (President’s Report on Federal IT Modernization NASA, 2018). This approach requires a modern data architecture as well as an aligned management structure to balance risk and security.

Along with risk come the element of trust: erasing boundaries within and beyond the information technology sector means that cybersecurity risk must become the concern of everyone. A baseline level of training regarding effective IT security, data security, and systems management must not only be offered, but embraced by users at all levels.

As NASA prepares for the Future of Work, the Agency must intentionally design for increased self-service. A self-service approach provides previously unavailable direct access to data and platforms that employees can use to more efficiently deliver government services anywhere at any time. Online self-service capabilities will provide the workforce round-the-clock access to real-time information, reducing the time employees need to navigate siloed systems and refocusing time saved to pursue mission objectives.

About the Authors

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).


Why I Gave NASA A Second Chance?

I am a computer scientist studying artificial intelligence and robotics. As with many of my peers, NASA has always been my dream. It represented everything I loved about the future, and I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and exploring the stars. I was inspired by the daily APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), the Mars rovers, Robonaut and Valkyrie, the legacy of interstellar probes… and the list goes on.

Beyond the technical nature of my work, I have deeply-rooted love for creativity and innovation.

When I received the call from an HR representative at NASA asking if I’d come work for them, I dropped everything. On the call, I was jumping cell towers on a family camping trip through national parks along the Colorado River. Accepting the job made absolutely no sense for me. I knew almost nothing about what I was getting myself into. It was two weeks before class started, I had just signed a year-long lease for a new apartment in Minneapolis, I was on the board of 3 student organizations with big responsibilities.

None of that mattered. It was NASA, and they wanted me.

Creativity and innovation are two characteristics that many (rightfully) might not immediately attribute to the federal government. However, I convinced myself that NASA would be different. The people that work here are the best of the best. They put a man on the moon. They’ve mastered the physics of keeping a delicate structure the size of a football field floating in air while traveling at 17,500 mph for 20+ years. NASA must be innovative.

When I arrived in Houston and finished orientation, I was absolutely entranced. I drove by T-38 astronaut trainers outside of Space City Houston, I took a right at a modified NASA 747 with Space Shuttle Independence mounted on top. I drove by Rocket Park, through an intimidating security gate, past Mission Control and into the parking lot outside a brand new, beautiful, LEED Platinum certified green building — Building 20. I was introduced to my team, and shown to my cubicle. I was ecstatic; I had my very own cubicle at NASA! Easily the best first day of my life.

Day in, and day out, I made my daily commute, brewed my morning coffee, had small talk with my neighbors, and worked diligently on my project, Artificial Intelligence in Requirement Tailoring with Safety and Mission Assurance. Slowly, the sparkles and novelty wore off and became commonplace. The hours and hours parsing through requirements in my 8×8 beige cubicle, one in a row of twenty, five layers deep, became painful. The work was novel and noteworthy, the mission was vital, but yet the physical space around me was so uninspiring. I couldn’t understand how people were expected to be innovative and cutting edge in a place like this.

I remember one specific moment when a few of us bought postcards from Starport and pinned them to our cubicle walls in an effort to bring color to the sea of beige. In that moment, I knew there had to be something better. It didn’t take long for me to learn about the 1958 Coworking Space.

I had first been drawn to the start-up culture after fulfilling my first paying website contract at 12 years old. From there, I would walk into conference rooms with my IBM Thinkpad and my squeaky voice and tell local businesses why they should trust a middle school student to make their website. I made apps for my teachers, online greeting cards for friends and family, and websites for my clients. I was a one man development team (with my wonderful mother helping with the business side). I had no bureaucracy, no overhead, nothing but a few lines of code and a few extra hours separating me and the finished product. I was a doer, then and now, and it has defined my expectations for every job I’ve had since. In my second floor, nth column, isle row, beige cubicle working in safety, I was not a doer. This was not the NASA I signed up for.

When you first walk into the 1958 Coworking Space, often shortened to just “1958”, you’re confronted with posters that scream `DOER!’ The space houses a maker room, colorful modern furniture, custom made wooden accent walls, a hyperwall “jumbotron” made up of 12 HD TVs, a sandbox with simulated water; the list goes on. These type of projects are a byproduct of the culture at 1958. If you inspired by something cool, you just make it. We’re not sitting around waiting — we’re doing.

1958 is made up of two buildings at Johnson Space Center. It promotes innovation and collaboration by providing a flexible work environment and fully featured conference rooms that can be used by anyone on center. This is one of the few spaces at JSC where professionals from every organization engage in a productive collision of ideas just by being here.

Even if you don’t consider yourself an over-the-top creative person, you are almost guaranteed to think of something innovative in a space like this. 1958 is a space with volume that visitors feel obligated to fill with ideas – just by being in such a different space, people are pushed to think differently. It’s a colorful space with recreational amenities designed to allow employees to take a break and relax, in turn making the mind susceptible to insight and innovation. Visitors to the space can stand up and roam around. You can visit the space every day for a months and still have new places to work. Just by existing in an environment like this, I feel more creative. Every day is engaging, and no day is routine.

I still get off the highway at the same T-38s, I still take a right at the space shuttle and drive by Rocket Park, through the same security gate, and past Mission Control. Only this time my road doesn’t end at a beige cubicle. My new building is still categorically and unquestionably NASA; we have a Gemini capsule out front and some rocket engines out back. But inside these walls is something new, something worthy of a second chance. It’s the innovative NASA I grew up expecting.

About the Authors

Alex Kafer | Alex is an intern with the 1958 coworking space at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He studies Computer Science and Product Design at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Alex considers himself a problem solver, using his technical experience in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, paired with his love for creativity and design to come up with novel solutions to problems organizations face everyday.

Suzanna Yates | Neely is a Content Hacker Intern at NASA.  She studies International Political Economy and Computer Science at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. Neely is passionate about making STEM a more inclusive field. She has interned for Congressmen and local officials to advocate for her ideas. Neely also loves coding and learning languages. Whether she is talking to a human or computer, she likes to learn how to communicate in new, creative ways.

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 Technology Strategy and Engagement Division within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO).  

The Changing Office Space

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).

Embracing Modern Workspaces and Collaboration

At the intersection of people, place, and technology is NASA’s need to enable its people anytime, anywhere. The traditional boundaries of our workspaces are disappearing because of advances in technology. Work, especially “knowledge work”, can now be conducted anywhere at anytime by putting information, data, and tools at the fingertips of an increasingly mobile workforce. As the work and workforce evolve, the workplace must also adapt. Modern workspaces are being redesigned for greater flexibility and autonomy to enable teams to arrange themselves as needed to best work together, both collaboratively and individually.

As technological advances erode traditional boundaries, more work can be completed by teams empowered to discern when and where is best suited for the people involved and the needs of the project at hand. The modern workplace is evolving to meet new demands and is consequently being designed to allow for greater flexibility and autonomy. The office today is at the nexus of the social, technological, and physical worlds. Rethinking the way we manage workspaces, virtually and physically, is giving rise to modern workplaces and an entire industry that offers office-as-a-service to an increasingly mobile workforce.

As the migration toward a global and connected world continues, historical workplace models that offer cubicles and stationary space resonate less with an emerging workforce. Three distinct tiers of office models exist today: the physical presence where everyone shows up and work is conducted primarily on site; the virtual state, an asynchronous model where people choose to work anywhere and at convenient times; and a physical-virtual hybrid that balances physical presence with the virtual mobile world and convenient times (Design & Plan, n.d.). Renewing and modernizing the workplace in a way that recognizes these preferences is key to attracting, engaging, and enabling the 21st century workforce.

As the work and workforce continually evolve, the workplace must likewise transform to reflect the change or it becomes a barrier. The physical facilities of all organizations—including NASA—must be maintained, upgraded, and modernized, as should the tools and processes employed to facilitate collaboration across increasingly distributed workforces (GSA Employee Survey Reports, 2017).

NASA facilities reflect their roots in the industrial revolution, where a strict division of labor meant the need for proximity to accomplish work in office arrangements geared to maximize efficiency and mirror hierarchy. GSA government-wide surveys indicate that employees rate NASA facilities in the bottom 25 percent of all federal government buildings (GSA Employee Survey Reports, 2017). NASA is also pressed to reduce its total facilities footprint by 25 percent in 20 years as of this writing.

Further, new spaces and technologies are vital precursors to developing an open culture of collaboration. As NASA steers away from maintaining expensive and outdated infrastructures, it will need to consider the impact of technology on how and where people work. The Agency must readily embrace the way technology is improving organizational agility, increasing productivity, aiding in decision-making, and permitting teams to engage and grow beyond past boundaries. Modern collaboration technologies are key to enabling that virtual workplace. To realize the full value offered by new ways of working, the NASA workforce will require increased readiness to move towards embracing fully virtual or hybrid office models.

To begin addressing its aging facilities vulnerabilities and enable an increasingly mobile workforce, NASA may leverage the understanding of its current infrastructure to explore new options for operating space with industry and through shared ownership models. While NASA may continue operating facilities across the US, a combination of facilities’ attrition and alternative ownership approaches may be best suited for the Agency in seeking to accomplish footprint reduction goals and eliminate or reduce maintenance costs. For spaces that it does maintain, NASA may prioritize office space redesign efforts that put people at the center of their work–personal life experience.

Building on virtual approaches, NASA is poised to shift from desk-centric, knowledge-based tasking to more virtual work. Capitalizing on options such as telecommuting and virtualization will help NASA shift from traditional office schedules and cultures and further facilitate necessary facilities reductions. Modern workplaces and virtual work environments also present opportunities to combat concerns surrounding hiring and engaging talent. NASA hiring specialists and managers continually express difficulty in recruiting based on their locations (Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley struggles to compete with the pay and bonus options of Google, Yahoo, SpaceX, and Facebook). Rather than compete on compensation, the Agency is poised to compete on the complete package it could extend candidates (mission impact, flexibility, autonomy, and much more). As such, the Agency should embrace place as a key component of employee engagement by linking office modernization and redesign projects to maturing engagement programs reaching employees wherever they are.

Finally, NASA must provide essential virtual collaboration tools and help employees establish the collaboration competencies necessary to foster and enable an increasingly remote, agile workforce. Virtual work and collaboration requires new skills and methods for working; building on the learning of current telecommuting staff, NASA may mature current programs with virtual learning and team training to better equip a growing virtual workforce. Leveraging the flexibility such skills provide, the Agency will remain an attractive employer—and a best place to work—by encouraging work-life balance with alternative schedules and greater mobility that support employees across life stages and throughout their careers.

About the Authors

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).

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

In 2017, 10.1% of the US workforce was engaged in some sort of alternative work arrangements, with practices like flexible work schedule, job-sharing, or telecommuting.  An even larger percentage of the U.S. working-age population identifies themselves as an independent worker, either as their primary or supplemental income. 60 million workers make up the gig economy, and this number is estimated to rise to the majority of the workforce by 2027. There is no doubt that the gig economy is here and having an enormous impact on the workforce.  It would be hard to write about the Future of Work and not consider the role and disruptive nature that the gig economy is having on NASA.

The gig economy is helping change the nature of work.  Independent contractors and freelancers have more flexibility and choice in the work that they do, but carry more of the economic risk as well.  For organizations that are dependent on a traditional system of full-time, lifelong hiring, the gig economy might feel like a sudden and unpredicted shift to how business has always been done.  However, there are plenty of examples of how companies are increasingly shifting non-core jobs, such as design, marketing, and human resources, to gig workers in order to focus on the things they do best, like manufacturing products or selling services (CNBC, 2018).   For some, the gig economy has a negative reputation that includes high job insecurity, lack of benefits and decreasing pay. However, the Harvard Business Review found gig economy workers “felt they had mustered more courage and were leading richer lives.” For many, trading in the corporate 9-5 job with a predictable paycheck for more autonomy and flexible work arrangements is worth it.

The gig economy been fueled by a shift in thinking about what it means to have a career.  Is it okay for an employee to have a lot of different interests, projects and curiosities that lead to multiple jobs?  Or is it better to “climb the career ladder” and become a master of your discipline? An Ottawa-based, career coach named Jean-Philippe Michel, teaches students to think about skills instead of careers.  Instead of asking “What do you want to be when you grow up,”perhaps the better question is “How do you want to be when you grow up?” (BBC, 2017) In focusing on skills and values, he encourages  his students to build transferable skills for the area of expertise they enjoy. Hence, if this area’s demand declined, or if they became bored with the repetition of it, they could translate their skills into another job with the same desired environment. This relates back to the idea of having tasks and skills dictate the job, instead of the job dictating the tasks and developing the skills. In the current workforce, it is already becoming common to straddle multiple areas within the same company. For example, I am writing this article for the Human Capital Office, I shoot videos for the Office of Education, and I design parts as an engineer. Companies like Cisco and MasterCard are taking this one step further by letting employees proactively pick projects they prefer in order to fill company gaps. Employees are empowered to choose projects based on skills they have and/or want to learn and develop. So far, the benefits of this internal freelancing has proven to be greater retention: it reduces turnover because the employees are able to find meaningful projects within their current company.

Consider the website and online community. Founded by Emilie Wapnick, an award-winning author, artist, and community builder, Puttylike is a community of people who call themselves multipotentialites: people who enjoy and want to pursue a variety of interests that are not usually related to one another. These are people always working on multiple projects, with tabs on tabs on tabs open in their browser and piles of books on their nightstands.  The community at Puttylike is made up of people who get bored after short bursts of doing the same thing and who are rapidly shifting and changing their interests, obsessively delving into one spontaneously, and then shifting yet again. The website offers an assessment (pictured above) that scores you on a spectrum from simultaneous to sequential and offers advice for multipotentialities based on the results.  This type of thinking is a shift from the current workforce landscape that heavily caters to specialists. Although some employees do fall in with just one particular subject that they hope to work on for an extended period of time, this doesn’t present many opportunities for multipotentialites.

NASA has traditionally offered plenty of opportunities for the specialist.  In fact, building, launching, maintaining and unpacking the discoveries of space missions is often a 10 or 20 year effort requiring the focus only a team of specialists can bring.  Without the role of a specialist, it would be nearly impossible to land a rover on Mars or sustain the International Space Station for decades. Some positions, such as a Flight Director, require at least a decade of on-the-job experience.  Yet, there is an equally large amount of research that points to the valuable role generalists, and multipotentialites, serve in the workforce. Generalists disrupt siloed thinking, challenge the status quo, and encourage interdisciplinary interactions.  A healthy workplace makes room for both specialists and generalists by focusing on the effective matching of the talent and passion of individuals with the work that needs to be done. Specialists can focus and generalists can disrupt.

Agencies like NASA are beginning to explore how they can offer alternative work arrangements and encourage workforce mobility in order to attract and utilize their employees more effectively.  In the future, NASA’s workforce will likely include part-time and full-time workers, generalists and specialists, multipotentialities and sequentialists. A larger percentage of talent will come from outside the current workforce, enabling more highly knowledgeable and passionate people to contribute to NASA’s mission. Inside NASA, employees will have more of an ability to pursue projects that align with their talents, passions, interests and development objectives. In this way, NASA will create a multidimensional and agile workforce, where job transitions are easier, job descriptions are more flexible, and talent is more effectively channeled.  

About the Authors

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).

Sarosh Nandwani | Sarosh is a NASA intern with experience working in the EVA, Crew Systems, and Robotics division at the NBL and is focused on expanding their VR capabilities. Sarosh attends UT Austin and will graduate in December 2019 with degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Anthropology. Sarosh is passionate about poetry and art and works part-time in UT Austin’s Defabrication and Electronics Lab, the MakerStudio, during the school year. She says hello to every dog she sees.


Deploying Talent, Mobilizing Careers

Historically, organizations have defined their “talent” as an employee who works for one company, often in the same job or discipline, for their entire career.  The assumption is that the relationship between the employer and the employee will be a long one. However, the employee from a decade ago isn’t the same as the employee who we are starting to see today.  A number of recent studies report that although older employees may have stayed with their employer for careers lasting more than 20 years, it’s unlikely that their children or grandchildren will experience the same job tenure.  A longitudinal study by the American Bureau of Labour Statistics that tracks the frequency of job changes points out that even for the Baby Boomer generation, individuals change jobs frequently, and on average have held 11.9 jobs throughout their careers, from ages 18 to 50 (BLS, 2017).  

There are many reasons people change jobs, such as increased compensation or new opportunities.  One strong motivator for change, especially for younger employees in STEM fields, is an ongoing desire for new experiences and challenges that support their learning and development. Career mobility is an essential ingredient for their professional and personal development.

This inherent restlessness provides organizations and leaders looking for fresh ideas, new perspectives and a more engaged workforce with a unique opportunity,  Good leaders ensure that the workplace offers plenty of opportunity to help people develop new skills, experience new roles and responsibilities, and advance into new career paths. They understand that when employees grow, their productive capacity increases. When their productive capacity increases, the capacity of the organization increases.  However, engaging this new workforce requires rethinking the definition of “talent.” and strategies for mobilizing careers. Google’s approach permits extensive latitude for employees to select their projects; other companies, such as McKinsey, fully exploit the use of a “talent marketplace” to efficiently match talent with opportunities. 

NASA is adopting a new definition of talent that includes the traditional full-time employee, but also recognizes the value of part-time workers who serve on short-term, project based assignments, emeritus employees who desire to contribute after retirement, and gig economy workers that contribute through an increasing number of channels.  NASA even recognizes that talent may include “machine talent” such as robots, algorithms, and artificial intelligence and robots. As we broaden our definition of talent, we are also developing new ways to inspire, develop and mobilize our workforce.

To address this, NASA is deploying an internal, Agency-wide talent marketplace accessible to the full workforce that will include a full range of permanent, part-time, detail, rotation and temporary positions.  Employees benefit through discovering new opportunities for development and advancement. Managers benefit through being able to more creatively and efficiently address work challenges as well as discover previously hidden talent, and the organization benefits by developing overall stronger capacity, including a more engaged workforce .

About the Authors

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).

Developing Cross-Generational Talent

Amidst a dynamic and ever changing workforce, NASA strives to support the growth and development of each employee during every stage of their career. Understanding the current state of this workforce is integral to improving and ensuring the success of NASA employees.

There are currently five generations that comprise the U.S. workforce, ranging in ages from 16 to 80+. The population of older workers – over age 55 – is growing as people choose to stay engaged professionally and/or not fully retire.  At NASA, 36 percent of employees are 55 or older, and 21 percent of NASA employees are eligible for retirement. NASA enforces no mandatory retirement age, and embraces and supports the rich diversity and experience of this critical cohort.

NASA Employee Ages Percentage of Workforce
Under 20 0%
20 to 24 2%
25 to 29 5%
30 to 34 8%
35 to 39 10%
40 to 44 9%
45 to 49 10%
50 to 54 18%
55 to 59 20%
60 to 64 11%
65 to 69 4%
70 or older 2%

While an older workforce can possess crucial institutional knowledge, it may be perceived as accepting, not challenging, the “status quo”, even though the opposite is true.  In a study by the SHRM Foundation, they found that most older workers are open to change, are interested in learning new things, and can play significant roles in contributing to or leading teams .  Likewise, a younger workforce may heavily leverage technology-based solutions, but may be perceived as “bucking the system” or not accepting workplace norms. Karen Higginbottom of Forbes writes, “In a multi-generational workforce, there is potential for negative stereotyping….Organizations need to take steps to ensure managers overcome their unconscious bias.”  

NASA is working to bridge the generational gap to prevent negative stereotypes from inhibiting the workforce. Mentorship programs and collaborative projects create opportunities to reduce this unconscious bias. NASA Headquarters Modern Mentoring Program brings these two generations together to build a new united working culture at NASA.

Creating an array of educational programs and initiatives, NASA has also begun to close the gap between students and older generations working at NASA. NASA offers internships, fellowships, workshops and many more opportunities. Summer programs such as NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration provide students interested in science and engineering with the opportunity to become apart of the NASA community. The Pathways Program at NASA additionally provides internships to highly motivated students whom are then considered for Federal employment. Fostering relationships with students and potential employees, helps NASA to create an productive working community amongst all age groups.  NASA Emeritus Programs support retirement-eligible employees with continuing to work in their careers on a voluntary part-time basis, and to train and mentor their successors. For example, After working at Goddard Spaceflight Center for 49 years, and at the age of 84, Vince Gigliotti retired but immediately returned as an Emeritus because of his sense of duty to continue working.

The multigenerational workforce is a driving force of change for organizations. NASA will continue to encourage and incentivize mutually beneficial cross-generational learning to bridge the gap between a new generation of talent and established NASA employees, as well look for new innovative solutions to engage all employees as it embraces the future of work.

About the Authors

Suzanna (Neely) Yates | Neely is a Content Hacker Intern at NASA.  She studies International Political Economy and Computer Science at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. Neely is passionate about making STEM a more inclusive field. She has interned for Congressmen and local officials to advocate for her ideas. Neely also loves coding and learning languages. Whether she is talking to a human or computer, she likes to learn how to communicate in new, creative ways.

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).  


Changing Attitudes Toward Learning & Development

At the heart of the Future of Work is a changing attitude towards learning and development. In today’s modern work environment, workers have an increased responsibility for their own formal and experiential learning. Careers are no longer linear or “owned” by a corporation, and learning needs are increasingly diversified and personalized. By enabling and equipping employees to have a hand in their own learning and development, an organization can offer valuable trust to their workers that will be repaid in innovation, loyalty and productivity. Instead of prescribing an employee’s learning opportunities, the leading organizations are those that support relationships and environments that support and enable self-driven learning and development.

In fact, trends show that workers actively seek the jobs and communities which support their desire to learn. In the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan write that it is a company’s responsibility to support employees’ requests to learn. Employees want “the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job” (Chamorro-Premuzic, Swan). NASA is committed to taking this fundamental need seriously and making it possible for employees – but at the same time allowing that development be self-directed.

Without a collaborative learning environment amongst employees, the profound discoveries and scientific advancements of NASA would not have been possible. In 2006, NASA took steps to improve this community even further. In a report released by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003), the Board concluded that NASA did “not demonstrate characteristics of a learning organization.” The two connected challenges, “integrating knowledge management and creating a learning organization,” were addressed at the Goddard Space Flight Center where a learning-loop was created to encourage continual learning. This Goddard system of learning included six major practices: Pause and Learn (PAL), Knowledge Sharing Workshops, Case Studies, Common Lessons Learned, GOLD Rules and The Road to Mission Success.

Some of these practices have been produced significant cultural changes in how learning happens within the Agency. Pause and Learn is a simple conversation among members of a team, typically conducted after a significant event or project milestone. Facilitated by a knowledgeable outsider who helps the team identify and capture knowledge gained at key project stages, the team then documents the essential elements of the conversation in the form of knowledge maps. The GOLD Rules (Goddard Open Learning Design) focus on applying proven, fundamental engineering design and practice to product and project management. They provide a sufficient common foundation without being hyper-specific about implementation, allowing for the needed flexibility for growth and innovation.

Upon implementing these practices, the Goddard Space Flight Center has progressed tremendously. This system has built a productive learning organization in the face of the Columbia report. However, NASA must continue to “reinforce learning behavior that enhances mission success across projects while investing in human capital strategies that assure sustainability in the future,” wrote Richard Day and Ed Rogers in a NASA publication. NASA is rooted in continual development, improvement and change, which has ultimately benefited the learning community. Culture is core to strategy, and these types of local practices have developed a learning culture at NASA that must precede more formal development.

NASA promotes growth-based careers through both formal and informal learning opportunities. Within these growth-based careers, talent exchanges such as team rotations and task forces can promote creativity and exchange of ideas. The ambition and capacity of employees to steadily learn and grow is not only beneficial to the individual, but to an individuals’ working teams and the organization as a whole.

For formal education such as classes, and workshops, NASA offers learning opportunities internally and provides limited financial support for educational experiences outside of the organization. Though the number of NASA employees receiving these educational stipends is one NASA hopes to grow, admittedly, budgetary constraints remain a challenge. Additionally federal law prohibits the organization, “from funding academic degrees for civil service personnel except through planned, systematic, and coordinated employee development programs that contribute significantly to meeting an individual training need.” NASA encourages employees to pursue formal educational ambitions as these are fundamental to the prosperity of both the employees and NASA.

Formal education isn’t the only (or even the best) avenue of development, though, especially as the nature and practice of work continues to change. NASA provides employees with the opportunity to learn informally or become a part of an experiential learning community.  Building a cohesive and diverse team is a great example of experiential learning in practice. NASA APPEL Knowledge Services has documented incredible stories across the Agency of lessons learned, project management case studies, and mission successes that were only possible because of intentional knowledge sharing. We learn by doing at NASA, and APPEL serves the vital role of making that learning available and effective for anyone who wants it. Mentoring programs build on that learning, giving employees relationships where they can ask questions and process ideas and thoughts outside of their normal teams.

The whole NASA team is constantly growing and adapting to the needs of the industry and the frontiers we are exploring through our the ever-changing, dynamic workforce. In order to create this collaborative learning environment, NASA continues to explore new solutions to further their formal education, improving team diversity and dynamics, and renovating physical spaces to promote further creativity. At the same time, employees are being encouraged to pursue development themselves, not waiting on NASA to prescribe or direct, but engaging their own interests and mentors, often cross-disciplinary and cross-silo. Learning and development cannot flourish from the top-down, and must be owned as the responsibility of every employee, not “for NASA” but “for their own curiosity and growth and interest.” It’s that kind of curiosity and daring that fuels the exploration that only NASA can do – and that creates the kind of people that NASA is so well-known for.

About the Authors

Neely Yates | Neely is a Content Hacker Intern at NASA. She studies International Political Economy and Computer Science at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. Neely is passionate about making STEM a more inclusive field. She has interned for Congressmen and local officials to advocate for her ideas. Neely also loves coding and learning languages. Whether she is talking to a human or computer, she likes to learn how to communicate in new, creative ways.

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).

Learning and Developing for a Lifetime

At the intersection of mission, people, and place is NASA’s need to develop and grow all talent at any stage. Rising life expectancies and an aging global workforce present organizations with unprecedented challenges and untapped opportunities. Developing ways for people to have meaningful, productive, multi-stage, and multidimensional careers creates new connection points to engage workers at any stage in life. Such career models geared toward continuous learning, development and growth are mutually beneficial for employees and organizations when aligned to the organizational capabilities necessary to accomplish the work.


The workforce of today and tomorrow desires to continually develop and constantly learn. Research consistently highlights that while generational differences are important, the stage in career is just as important, if not more so, when considering how to handle the learning and development needs of individuals and organizations (The Conference Board and Deloitte, 2016). The Future of Work reveals that the stage in career and stage in life are becoming intertwined. No longer do we routinely witness incremental choices where graduate degrees follow families or professional careers are put on hold to pursue long-standing dreams. Instead doors are opening naturally, and more of them, to achieve life and career pursuits simultaneously. Our primary research highlighted that constant learning is both a want and a need coupled with an expectation that learning would result more from self-teaching or on-the-job experiences than from formal instruction.

Learning over a lifetime is also taking on new meaning. We are living longer and retiring later (if at all). Approximately 74 percent of Americans plan to work past a retirement age of 65, conveying interest in continuing to contribute and remain engaged (Dye, 2017). Recognized as the longevity revolution, increasing life expectancies have tremendous impacts on and implications for organizations. Companies must account for new models of learning, development, and engagement that foster environments and build communities that care and feed increasingly diverse workforces. In turn, organizations must rethink the concept of value and performance to align pay and compensation for radically changed value creation from the new normal of lifelong careers.


Aforementioned trends and generated insights weigh heavily on forward-planning for NASA across the board. From development and performance perspectives, NASA offers fragmented development opportunities that are often location-based or discipline-centric and not equally accessible across the workforce. Leadership courses reach relatively small numbers of programmatically selected candidates. Prioritizing development is often challenged by the absence of a requirement for civil servants, which leads agencies to allocate diminishing funds elsewhere. From a performance angle, annual reviews serve as the foundation for tenure-based step pay increases with commensurate pay based on predefined compensation scales and feedback with no formal linkage to skills growth, development, potential, or promotion. Leadership and strong relationships weigh heavily on the quantity and quality of both development opportunities and performance assessment because systems and processes are set up for uniformity and do not facilitate alternate paths.

Shaping and succession are areas of increasing priority. NASA’s workforce is aging and suffers from talent lock-in where 56 percent of the workforce is 50 years old or older (compared to 49% in 2012). In comparison, the median age of SpaceX’s 6,000 employees is 31 (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2018). At the onset of 2018, 21 percent of the workforce was retirement-eligible with another 23 percent of employees eligible in less than 5 years. Whether employees stay past retirement-eligibility varies by occupation, but individuals typically remain 4 to 7 years past their initial eligibility date and staff in engineering and science occupations tend to stay on longer. NASA currently holds no mandatory retirement age and remains bound by the rights of civil servants to their positions. Overall attrition hovers at 4 percent, leaving little room for meaningful flexibility in the workforce composition or skills refresh. While NASA’s sizeable aging workforce provides a way to retain institutional knowledge as experienced staff stay longer, it also results in higher acceptance of the “status quo” and limits the Agency’s ability to shape the workforce supply to satisfy new skills, approaches, and ideas serving our dynamic mission demand.


Learning and longevity demands a reimagined talent development strategy that engages and rewards continuous learning accessible to all employees (of all ages and career stages). This strategy must exploit the notion of growth-based careers, effectively valuing the learning from growth through diverse experiences offered by talent exchanges and movement (rotations, term assignments, teams/task forces, and more). Compensation, promotion, and rewards must be clearly based on criteria aligned to skills attainment and enhancement, recognition of continued merit in one’s technical field, and desirability and selection for work by project teams, versus longevity or past performance history.

In tandem, NASA will need to refine the workforce shaping toolkit to include a mix of solutions beyond phased retirements: increased separation incentives, revised special pay authorities, pre-retirement programs, and the evolution of succession. Such solutions must also account for the refresh of skills. NASA must build in aforementioned methods to plan for and mobilize talent or will only perpetuate the current challenges. NASA must also work to build teaming approaches and partial-time matrixed opportunities that cross traditional boxes on charts and encourage cross-generational learning/knowledge transfer, as well as incentivize such behavior.

About the Authors

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).