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).