Benchmarking trip to NASA launches more confidence in ARL's engagement efforts

September 09, 2015

For the past three consecutive years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has ranked among the top three "Best Places to Work in Federal Government", a coveted spot on the list that the U.S. Army Research Laboratory hopes to attain one day.

In order to find out what NASA did to top that list, a team of ARL professionals traveled to its Washington, D.C., headquarters last month to learn first-hand how deliberate employee engagement efforts started there two and a half years ago aided NASA's ability to continue to rank high in meeting workforce expectations.

Natalie Simon, the staff program advisor for human capitol in ARL's civilian human resources office, organized the trip to "see if any of their best practices could be implemented at ARL. NASA's People website has a number of human capital related programs right at your fingertips. I wanted to gain a better sense of their HR resources, program structures, and their measurements for effectiveness. I especially thought this may be useful as we are revamping a number of HR policies and programs at ARL, and continue to move forward with our employee engagement strategy."

NASA's engagement efforts are part of a "first-of-its-kind plan that focuses more on human beings and engagement—both within and beyond Human Capital orgs—rather than a 'to do' list for the next year or two," said Jeffrey Frank, from NASA's Workforce Culture Division. "The plan is a resource that encourages all of us to approach our work in Human Capital from the perspective of curiosity, learning, connection, and growth. It looks at 'ways of being' in our work at NASA—in addition to what we do and how we support people and missions."

Their efforts are built on input from senior leadership and their geographically dispersed workforce. It focuses on ways to help NASA become a model organization through a cultural strategy that connects people to each other and the mission, builds supervisors and key leaders and recognizes innovation and performance.

"We defined engagement as generally the things that make people think, feel and act like they are affiliated with the organization," said Lauren Leo, who is the director of the Workforce Culture Division inside NASA's Office of Human Capital Management.

"When we think back on cultural changes, usually it's in response to something wrong and then (organizations) change what's wrong." Leo said NASA has, "a long list of what's really great; we're focusing on how to build upon that."

ARL is taking similar approaches with People First, its workforce engagement effort designed to create an organizational culture that is inclusive and built on trust, which reaffirms value in workforce.

T'Jae Ellis, who leads People First, said "ARL is already a good place to work, but we are confident that ARL will be viewed as a great place to work."

"Not everyone is on board with every initiative NASA's engagement team presents or executes. But where they've realized success is in dropping what they call 'little bread crumbs' that together present an abundant selection that's improving their workforce's levels of engagement," said Ellis, who attended the site visit. She said ARL has similar experiences.

People First was launched a year ago to improve ARL's organizational culture. Under the leadership of the Civilian Human Resources Office, People First is supported by a steering committee of diverse members of the workforce who differ in professions, education, age, gender, ethnicity and experiences.

"We learned that our approach is almost identical to NASA's. Just as NASA did, we started our effort by soliciting workforce feedback through an audit HR conducted last summer, and by reviewing Lab Demo and Climate Survey results. Early on, we researched a number of organizations from government and industry as part of benchmarking. It took us about six months to receive buy-in on the proposed goals and objectives of the strategic initiative, and to get feedback on how to prioritize our action plan. That timing is about what we expected. Since January though, we've 'dropped little bread crumbs' as NASA calls it, and we have received favorable feedback on many of those efforts. Now, we're ready to roll up our sleeves and start rolling out more programs to the workforce," said Ellis.

Ellis said training and development is an enterprise priority. People First's Workforce Development Subcommittee is supporting a partnership between HR and the Division Chief Cohort to bring tailored training programs to ARL managers and supervisors. Pamela Clark, the chief of ARL's Battlefield Environment Division, represented the Division Chief Cohort during the NASA visit.

"I have already shared much of the material we gathered from NASA with my Division's Branch Chiefs and Team Leaders, specifically, NASA's Human Capital Plan," said Clark. "The NASA Human Capital 2015: A Guide to Building a Highly Engaged Workface is extremely well written. It is no wonder NASA is named each year one of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government."

Ellis said People First is also partnering with ARL's training development team in HR, the Post Doc Association, the Diversity Advisory Board and others to eventually offer a catalogue of training opportunities that addresses personal as well as professional development courses from personal finances management to leadership communication and the like.

To reach the People First team, please email usarmy.adelphi.rdecom-arl.mbx.people-first-inquiries.


Last Update / Reviewed: September 9, 2015