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NASA’s culture chief reveals how COVID-19 altered the agency

Not only did NASA succeed in landing the ‘Perseverance’ rover on Mars, it did so while most of the agency was working from home.

NASA’s culture chief reveals how COVID-19 altered the agency
[Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech]
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For Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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On March 11, 2020, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, some 18,000 civil servants who make up the full-time staff of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were evacuated from the organization’s 10 space and research centers and went into a mandatory telework arrangement. NASA’s contract workforce of nearly twice that number was also mandated to work remotely. Ninety percent of the organization’s workforce was reporting for duty from their couches, kitchen tables, or other makeshift workspaces, just like so many others. 

Figuring out how to collaborate and innovate during a global health crisis was challenging for everyone. But NASA was mere months away from launching Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover, an endeavor nine years in the making. We now know that the mission successfully touched down on the Red Planet less than a month shy of the anniversary of the CDC’s pronouncement, but it wasn’t a given. 

NASA’s mission, to “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth,” requires a high level of dedication that must run throughout the workforce, according to Elizabeth Kolmstetter, an organizational psychologist. As NASA’s deputy for culture and workforce transformation who is based in Washington, D.C., Kolmstetter maintains that the now-famous story of President John F. Kennedy’s encounter with a janitor when he toured the NASA space center in 1961 continues to illustrate how tied to the mission everyone is, no matter what their position or external circumstances. For those who haven’t heard it, the president paused the tour to ask what the man was doing. “Well, Mr. President,” he said with broom in hand, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

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Kolmstetter spoke to Fast Company about the policies and procedures that kept NASA aloft.

Fast Company: There can be a difference between what an organization thinks its mission and values are and what emerges during a crisis. Walk me through you experienced at NASA during this year.

Elizabeth Kolmstetter: Our purpose never changed, but how we work changed pretty drastically. The realization for a lot of our supervisors and managers that work could be done so well in this [virtual] mode was a paradigm shift. We had been such a hands-on, in-person agency, and now we see that more flexible arrangements and more remote situations or virtual meetings actually are productive. 

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Does offering more flexible work arrangements mean you’ll need to explore different ways of measuring productivity?

We still have our time and attendance requirements, so people log in their hours, but nobody’s tracking which hours you’re on your computer as long as you’re delivering your work. We are a knowledge workforce. We don’t deliver widgets or anything that’s that quantifiable on a day-to-day [basis]. So it is much more: These are your projects. Are you meeting your milestones? Supervisors went through the performance plans and revised them so that our employees were not held accountable for things that were not possible in this time.

How do you make sure that people aren’t getting burned out?

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Some feel [that being on a video screen all day] is actually more conducive for them, and for others, it’s burnout. The commute got filled with turning on your computer, sooner, and more meetings, emails, or team chats. So we started a real time live dashboard and included data from employee assistance programs and [vacation day] usage. We recognized that toward the end of the summer, nobody was using their leave because of travel restrictions. Senior leadership messaged [supervisors] to please have conversations with employees and encourage them to take leave because the burnout factor is so high with the stress of what’s going on with the pandemic, the isolation from your friends and family, and so forth. 

Members of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission work remotely from home during the coronavirus outbreak. [Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech]
We started a communications campaign and actually had to give our supervisors tips on [what to say when] their people say they have nowhere to go. Like, “get in your car and drive somewhere you’ve never gone before, just to experience a different environment. Call a friend from college you haven’t spoken to for years. Connect with somebody and ask them how they’re doing.” We got responses that this was really helpful. Employees didn’t even realize the toll it was taking on them until they were able to get some distance and take those breaks. We have launched a new [data-driven] program called Voice of the Workforce to gather information from employees on their pain points, ideas, and issues. 

We were also were able to offer 20 hours per two week pay period for our employees to take for self and family care. That was rated as the number one thing that our employees said really helped them through this time. And we still have that today, because we’re still in mandatory evacuation from our work sites. Giving people the ability to have paid time to take care of their children, elder parents, whoever they have really relieves some of that pressure.

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How are you communicating all these new learnings?

We started recording these sessions because we realized not everybody can come to everything when they are scheduled. We’ve gotten great feedback that that has been an improvement because [if they can’t get to the meeting] they can still hear and see the same message. 

How are you encouraging people to collaborate when they can’t do so spontaneously like they used to?

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We have a lot of coffee chats and virtual happy hours. And we have heard that [our employees] were surprised how many people they have met because of this. Because with virtual meetings, you can invite more people. It’s expanding how many people can contribute to a project. 

There’s this sort of democratization that’s happened that you’re all a square on the screen. It’s not like the top, most highly ranked leader has got the bigger square. And a leader of the team can see everybody’s name, go down the list, and bring in new voices and perspectives in a much easier way. 

Do you expect to get everyone back on-site this year? What’s next?

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I think of it as a pendulum. We’ve swung all the way to mandatory evacuations offsite. We’re starting to swing back toward the middle, but we are moving to a hybrid, and that is harder than [one or the other]. 

Our employees want to know how we are going to figure out what that sweet spot is. “How much [remote work] are we going to be allowed to do? What would have an impact on their performance or my promotion ability?” 

We’ll probably be experimenting for six months or a year. The Perseverance rover landing on February 18 just proves that we can do anything. Our mission is inspiring. It inspires the world. 

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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