Jane Datta, chief human capital officer at NASA. NASA is one of the most well-known and respected government agencies in the world. As a result of the agency\u2019s ventures into the unknown, many would expect the organization to be experienced with non-office-based working and having teams collaborating over vast distances. Ahead of Jane Datta\u2019s appearance at the upcoming UNLEASH\/iCIMS INSPIRE European summit about the future of work, NASA\u2019s chief human capital officer sat down with UNLEASH to discuss the agency\u2019s future of work plans, as well as how it dealt with the challenges of the pandemic. Datta tells UNLEASH that the company had long been prepared for remote working because of earlier investments. The chief human capital officer explains that, like most other companies, NASA made the \u201cswitch from being mostly in the office to being mostly remote back in March of last year. That switch happened really fast, like in a couple of weeks.\u201d However, \u201cthe good news was that we had had a lot of experience with remote work on an intermittent basis, and so it wasn\u2019t an unfamiliar process for NASA; it\u2019s just that we didn\u2019t do it in large numbers at any given day,\u201d adds Datta. She notes: \u201cWe had lots of people who did it sometimes, but their predominant location was still the office. The fact that we had experienced for a good decade prior to last March, gave us something to start with. Otherwise, I think we would have struggled more.\u201d Like many other employers, at certain points in 2020, the agency had 90% of its employees working remotely. Efficiency at home Datta states that as more people worked from home processes changed; \u201cwe have learned how to get work done and to cope with the fact that things that we would typically have wanted to do face to face we can now do virtually. That includes creative endeavors, change management with teams, and individual employee\/supervisor conversations, we\u2019ve learned how to do all of those things decently well . \u201cIn some cases, we may actually be more productive in the virtual environment. We\u2019re avoiding things like the commute and walking around to get to a new conference room for a meeting, which is lost time.\u201d\u201d While there have been efficiency improvements, Datta did note that some mechanical projects require human interaction. With this in mind, not all parts of NASA\u2019s operations have been sped up or improved during the pandemic. To ensure the success of remote working, engagement is key. Datta states that NASA continues \u201cto do a lot of communications to the workforce around all things related to the capacity constraints that are a direct result of COVID-19.\u201d In terms of how engagement is done remotely, Datta explains: \u201cOur CIO had been fairly forward-leaning around what are the kinds of tools that are available on the market. So we had virtual tools, but we had other tools even before that we used for all sorts of virtual connections.\u201d She continues: \u201cI think what happened is that whilst adoption of those tools had been kind of slow and steady prior to COVID-19, we\u2019ve just fast-forwarded the adoption of the tools. So there\u2019s no one tool, I don\u2019t think, that was predominant other than the meeting platforms. But what I see happening is that people are using more of the functions that were available and would have been available absent COVID\u201319.\u201d Datta adds that when it comes to employee development \u201cthis is just about good management, right?\u201d \u201cIf I know my people -and it\u2019s really important that people leaders know their people- I know what they\u2019re doing, I know what they\u2019re struggling with, I know what they\u2019re doing well, I know what they\u2019re interested in learning better,\u201d she states. Bar exceptions when hardware needs to be discussed or altered in person, the chief human capital officer said that she is \u201crelentlessly optimistic about the possibilities of learning and development when it is not primarily done on sites.\u201d She explains \u201cwhat I mean by that is, especially in NASA, where we have very long-tenured employees and our turnover is low, there\u2019s a lot of responsibility to provide learning opportunities. \u201cI feel that when learning opportunities are enabled, virtually, that there are many, many, many more opportunities for employees than there would be. At lower cost often, and at a lower cost to the employee.\u201d Credit: NASA The future of work Looking ahead, \u201cI fully anticipate that the marketplace will continue to evolve, meaning I think there\u2019s a demand out there for government and non-government for people to be able to connect with each other on their work and their missions\u201d, explains Datta. \u201cWhen there\u2019s a demand, the market will find some supply\u201d. With this possible market evolution, the chief human capital officer suggests that there will be more intuitive virtual software for employees that help them feel better connected to office life. Datta believes \u201cwe\u2019re now in an era where we\u2019re trying to figure out how to remain resilient\u201d. \u201cI think it\u2019s one thing to kind of pull out all the stops and figure out how to cope with a new way of doing work when you think it\u2019s going to end, and now we\u2019re sort of in this moment where we\u2019re not sure if or how it ends,\u201d explains Datta. \u201cNow the resilience kicks in and I think \u2018Oh, it\u2019s going to be a hybrid situation\u2019 in terms of how we want to work in the future, which is another effort we\u2019ve undertaken since the early part of 2021. Then we realize we may need to maintain our current status for health reasons for considerably longer than we thought.\u201d Due to the added factors of employees splitting time between home and the office, Datta remarks that the mix of hybrid work \u201cis harder than one extreme or the other.\u201d Despite this challenge, Datta remains hopeful. \u201cMy big hope for 2022 is that we sort out the lasting impact of COVID-19, which might entail some remaining on-site restrictions, we move from where we are now into the next phase; that we get better at hybrid.\u201d She adds: \u201cI had mentioned before that the extremes are easier, and I believe that to be very much the case, but that we can do the mix, which is the hybrid. We just have to practice.\u201d If you want to hear more of Jane Datta\u2019s thoughts about the future of work, register now for your complimentary seat at UNLEASH and iCIMS Inspire HR European Summit on 21 October.