[Interview] Romell Thomas @NASA

[Interview Done in  June 2020]

I have an interview with a special guest: Romell Thomas, who commands an important role as the Center Learning Officer at NASA. He is responsible for all learning and development policies, processes, and the budget for the Johnson Space Center. I met Romell last year during a session I delivered in Houston to a group of NASA employees.

Learnings from the pandemic

This time, we discuss if the organisation managed to take off during the crisis? How has the journey been, & what are some of the learnings?

Mr. Thomas shares that since the start of the lockdown, around 60,000 people in their workforce have been working remotely. Only crucial functions (like onsite engineers in mission control) were allowed to work in the offices. Due to the lockdown, a lot of procedures had to be revised, and this led to a great efficiency boost.

New onboarding procedures

‘A good example is our boarding and exiting procedures. These procedures were really outdated, and due to this forced change, we could create a more simple & efficient process to perform these activities. No need for a lot of different signatures from HR, administration, guards, … because everything is done digitally. Now, we prepare things far in advance, where in the past it was triggered by a question from a new employee.’

Leadership support

‘What are some procedures in your organisation that have been improved ‘thanks’ to the COVID19 crisis?’ ‘Another big implication of the whole crisis is how our leadership functions. The supervisors have to work with more trust and micro-management isn’t possible anymore. This was quite a big challenge for several leaders and for that reason, we focussed a lot of attention on them to support this transition. A few things that we’ve done with them:

• Training and coaching to become comfortable with all video conferencing tools,

• Leverage the efficiency of their team members by allowing them to work at different hours (depending on the family situation of the employee). This also requires a different leadership mindset,

• Not managing the day-to-day work, but giving clear expectations and being there to answer questions from their team members.

We’ve noticed that the performance rates are quite high, so we can trust our people to do their jobs well, but we need to keep an eye on the morale & motivation because working remotely isn’t easy.

A bigger talent pool

Another advantage that became clear is that the talent pool became a lot bigger. In the past, some very qualified engineers didn’t want to move to Houston or other offices, but thanks to the ‘new digital normal’, we can collaborate with people from a larger geographical region because the need to come to the office is minimized.

We’re still in the middle of the whole crisis, and nobody knows what the future will bring. But, exploring unknown territory is the essence of NASA’s existence, so we’re confident that we will come out of this crisis in better shape than before.’