Advancing Science During a Public Health Crisis: An Interview with NSF’s Top HR Officer
“This pandemic has shown everyone that the nature of work is not where you work, but really what you do,” the National Science Foundation’s Wonzie Gardner says.
For 70 years, the National Science Foundation has been investing in basic research to advance the “health, prosperity, and welfare” of the nation. Created by Congress as an independent agency in 1950, NSF has “laid the groundwork for countless benefits for society, with groundbreaking advances ranging from the early internet, doppler weather radar, Magnetic Resonance Imaging , to the detection of gravitational waves,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “Today, NSF is funding researchers across the country as they work to advance our understanding of the novel coronavirus and help the nation combat and recover from this public health crisis.”
A key player in making that happen is Wonzie Gardner. As the office head and chief human capital officer in the Office of Information and Resource Management at NSF, Gardner coordinates and directs human resources, information systems and administrative services across the agency. He joined NSF in 2014 from the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, where he served as the director for logistics and facilities management. Gardner retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 2010 following a distinguished military career.
Government Executive interviewed Gardner on April 17 via Zoom. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
How would you characterize your management style?
I'd say my management style is that of a servant leader, which I learned over 26 years in the Air Force. I found that the best leaders were those that didn't put themselves above their staff, but we're there to support their staff to make sure they're able to do their job. I take the approach that it's my job to be like an information broker, to pass information up and pass information down and to give my leadership the data and the directions they need.
How many people do you manage?
I have approximately 183 federal employees [with] another 450 contractors to make up a team. We have, I think, been very successful in blending both contractors [and] federal employees into a cohesive unit. We're able to be flexible, be more agile by making a lot of those functions contractors.
What’s the hiring process like? Can you talk about challenges?
I would say the hiring process at my agency is very similar to those across other federal agencies. And one of the things that we're all working on is the speed at which we can onboard a federal employee. I think we're right around the 80-day period when you look for the start of an application from a program officer to actually get someone on board.
There are a lot of hiring flexibilities. One that comes to my mind is the one for military spouses. We have used that effectively in HR. We've used Schedule A [hiring authority for the diabled] quite a bit. And then we have some hiring authorities for our scientific programs where we're able to reach out to colleges and universities and find people for a particular period up to four years to come in and serve as part of our staff. That's been very effective for us. As a scientific agency, it's very important that we get those employees because that keeps us connected with the scientific community.
What about diversity? Do you prioritize that in the hiring process?
When you say prioritize, that gives people a misnomer; that says talent is not there when we start prioritizing for those other reasons. But we do definitely look at those factors to make sure we have an organization that represents society.
We’ve reached out to the [historically black colleges and universities], [Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities] and other organizations to make sure that we're going out there and finding those kinds of talents. But we're finding in STEM that because we don't start early enough in the pipeline, it gets harder and so we're making an increased effort to make sure that we look for diversity. I remind people that diversity does not mean deficient. Diversity means different. Different thought, different perspective and different outlook. So we are very conscious of diversity within our hiring process. It's one of the factors in there, but the primary factor is, is that person qualified for that job?
Can you talk about your relationship with unions and the collective bargaining process?
This is my first experience with [American Federation of Government Employees]. At my last job I worked with [National Treasury Employees Union]. I have been very supportive and very impressed with our union members. On the 28th of February we signed off on a new collective bargaining agreement with our union that hadn't been done in over 30 years. That was only [possible] because our workforce is really committed to the mission they perform every day.
On top of that, we've updated our personnel manual and done supervisor training, and then when we get back in a building after this pandemic we're going to do a question and answer session for all of our employees to talk about it. So we kind of level set, make sure we're starting off at the same point. I think because we have clarity now we will have less tension. Supervisors will know what they can do. Employees will know what the expectations are. I think there was a big sense of relief on both sides that we now have a working, living document that we could use to further the mission of NSF.
How have you had to shift operations during the coronavirus pandemic?
Around March 16 we decided that we needed to start letting our employees do 100% telework. I got direction from my director and my [chief operating officer] that the safety and welfare of our employees was mission No. 1. And so my task was to try to figure out how we could do that.
We did a gradual shift—we started cutting back on staff travel, we started looking at how we were going to triage our merit panel reviews. And then working with OMB and OPM we said everyone needs to go home. We went to 100% telework somewhere [near the end] of March.
We started extending workplace flexibilities. We changed our core hours to 6 a.m.-10 p.m. to give people a greater range of when they could work. We also started allowing our employees to earn credit hours on the weekend and make up for time that they could not work during the week. We've been able to give our staff additional work time off for weather and safety leave because they have children at home.
As this pandemic evolves, I think our positions on telework, our positions on work in general will evolve. We rolled out a lot more virtual tools. We are able to look at each other every day and have some kind of connection. Just as an anecdote, I had a virtual happy hour last week with over 95 of my staff members and family and kids. I knew I hit a home run when I had kids in my human resources shop talking to kids in my information technology shop who had met each other last year during our Take Our Sons and Daughters To Work day and they took over my Zoom meeting. It was just amazing.
This pandemic has shown everyone that the nature of work is not where you work, but really what you do. We can no longer say you can't work effectively from home.
Is there anything else I didn’t ask about that you would like to note?
We're very grateful that we're in positions to continue the work of our government, to be in a niche such as science. And we're very grateful to the men and women on the front lines. There are some tremendous, important jobs out there—a lot of unsung heroes. And as federal employees, we salute all of our colleagues out there trying to come up with a vaccine and ways to keep America safe and secure.
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