What can space missions teach us about remote work? Professors Tanusree Jain and Louis Brennan of Trinity Business School explore routines from ‘out of this world’ that enable the Earthbound to successfully adapt to the future of work.
Remote Working: Lessons from NASA’s isolation pros by CoBS Editor Megha Sureshkar. With kind acknowledgements to MIT Sloan Management Review with the article What Space Missions Can Teach Us About Remote Work.
“A brief emergency. That’s all there is to it,” thought Mr. Baker as he leaned back in his chair, quietly sipping his coffee. It had only been a few days since the COVID-19 crisis forced the employees of his fast-growing tech startup to leave their offices and work from home.
Alas, little did he know at the time that this whole work-from-home thing wasn’t going away anytime soon. That his now vacant office in midtown Manhattan would seem like the ruins of a bygone era for many ‘moons’ to come. And that he would deeply miss, for a very long time, the intangible magic that comes from being with people.
Fast forward to the present day. We are entering the third year of a global pandemic that hit like an asteroid and brought unprecedented changes to work. And although it is hard to pin down where we might find ourselves in the months ahead, one thing is certain. Remote work in some permutation is here to stay.
A blessing and a burden
Legions of employees have embraced remote work as the new normal. And why not? The pros are very clear: Supreme flexibility, undeniable autonomy and a commute that consists of walking down the hallway or a flight of stairs. Plus, less worry about virus exposure and vaccine-hesitant colleagues.
But there is a flip side as well. The home-work environment is fraught with challenges: Extended periods of labour in what are often confined spaces; blurred boundaries between professional and personal time; and, limited physical social interactions with workmates. Additionally, many have reported losing their basic sense of when days begin and end. In a recent survey in the UK, over 80% of participants said that their perception of time was affected during the pandemic. To make matters worse, there is no clear transition from weekdays at the office to weekends at home.
Faced with such a dark dangerous downside, do companies and employees have no other choice but to just grin and bear it? The answer is no.
The panacea ‘model’ for all remote working ills
Gathering insights from their research on the business of space, teleworking, and the link between technology and isolation — and discussions with middle management teams at tech companies — Profs. Jain and Brennan unveil tactics to successfully tackle the aforementioned problems and effectively manage a hybrid work environment. Approaches that draw inspiration from the organisation of work during space missions. Yes, you heard that right – space missions.
The typical space mission is representative of a physically disconnected work structure. On the one hand, you have the Mission Control — aka the office headquarters. On the other, you have distantly located, task-oriented teams. Such missions are characteristic of an isolated working environment within and across teams, and one in which a strong ethic of teamwork facilitated through close communication underpins the successful completion of an assignment – whether it is discovering how the lakes on Titan shimmer, or what the mineralogy of a particular Martian rock is.
Believe it or not, there are helpful cues managers can take from how astronauts structure their time and routines that lead to better planning and execution of work in a compact environment. After all, these gregarious space explorers have conquered the most splendid isolation of all.
The power of routine
During a crisis, routines undergo changes and evolve. Sometimes, not for the better. In fact, COVID-19 has produced some routines that are neither healthy nor sustainable: Working in pajamas. Eating lunch over the computer keyboard. Working beyond regular office hours.
Routines have immense value. They enable organisational work to stay on track by building positive and healthy workplace habits. In addition, their institutionalization over time creates prompts that trigger specified responses.
Observations and experiences within organisations shape people’s understanding of everyday routines, which in turn affect workflows. Be it checking emails at the start of the day, having spontaneous catch-ups with fellow co-workers at the coffee station, or looking forward to Friday evening after-work drinks, the repetition of workplace routines builds a sense of stability, safety, and predictability.
Addressing the inherent challenges of hybrid work, where colleagues must collaborate from different locations and are often in their personal living spaces, requires the development of new routines — similar to ones perfected by astronauts. So, what are those routines that can be borrowed from space travellers and their missions?
A leaf out of a journey to the cosmos
Although the dimensions and levels of hybridity within various functional units of an organisation may differ, there are three ‘space’ strategies from which all ‘Earth’ teams could reap benefits: Manufacturing zeitgebers to build new rhythms; planning for both structure and flexibility; and prioritising internal communication. Let us discuss each of these lessons in detail.
The timekeeper and his shifting hourglass
Zeitgebers (German for “time givers”) are external environmental factors that help to regulate the body’s internal biological rhythms. Examples include sunlight, darkness, temperature changes, as well as food intake, physical activity, and social interaction — things that influence energy levels and tell the body when to be alert. And when these timekeepers change significantly, people’s body clocks are thrown into chaos, triggering a downward spiral in mood, and eventually, affecting performance outcomes. If you have ever worked the night shift, you would easily be able to relate to this.
Humans are programmed to be asleep at night and awake during the day. Night shifts disturb these patterns, hacking the biological clock. As we sit hunched at our desks at night-time, staring at our laptop screens, we no longer have the ‘Go for it!’ signal from sunlight that we get working under a bright blue sky. In contrast, we have our body telling us to ‘put our pajamas on’. This in turn can result in pretty serious consequences – lack of concentration, interest, and energy, just to name a few.
If this is the situation for the night shift worker on Earth, imagine how a day would be for someone in the dramatically different space environment. Someone who witnesses multiple sunrises and sunsets a day — as many as 16 sunrises every 24 hours on the International Space Station as it orbits Earth. But a journey around the earth every 90 minutes is not the only problem.
Space missions involve extended periods of time spent in a confined physical setting. Not to mention, astronauts are subjected to restricted physical social interactions, work rhythms that include intense activity spurts, changes in eating patterns, and a reduction in the range of emotions they feel on a daily basis. Although their hectic work schedules keep them occupied, astronauts have to adjust to these alterations to their natural zeitgebers. And how do they do it?
Space explorers mark the passage of time by eating together, engaging in group recreational activities, celebrating holidays, and interacting with friends, family and loved ones via audio or video. Mission managers also do their part. They structure long-duration expeditions with intermediate goals, celebrating each milestone and highlighting the progress made toward the overall mission goal.
Now, let us travel back 250 miles to examples on Earth. Salesforce encourages its personnel to have a routine such that no one works outside of 8:30 to 5:30. Contractbook, a Danish contract management platform, has put in place an array of zeitgebers for its virtual workforce, including bi-weekly town halls, water cooler calls, selfie days, and a virtual gong over Slack every time a new sale closes. Such routines enable employees to celebrate small wins and replicate casual interactions with colleagues — even those they have never met in person.
In essence, as organisations move to establish more permanent options for hybrid working, it is crucial that managers account for lost zeitgebers and build new ones.
Little bit of this, little bit of that
Workplace structure refers to how individual departments, managers, and teams are organised and collaborate with one another. Office layouts may include open spaces to allow for fluidity in interactions across various teams, hot-desk options for work that need privacy, and conference rooms for quick meetings and bigger group discussions.
Remote working has resulted in a complete disruption of this open office concept. Instead of an agile environment with active physical and social interaction and abundant open space, we now have the remote backdrop plagued by extended periods of rigidity, both in a physical sense and a social sense.
Astronauts are no strangers to this rigidity and respond to the condition by observing a set schedule and routines on weekdays, with greater flexibility on weekends. Time is also set aside for carrying out housekeeping duties. The aim is to create organisation and consistency within the limits of a rigid environment.
When establishing hybrid work arrangements, managers must encourage workers to set boundaries and strike a balance between structure and flexibility to ensure that work does not creep into all aspects of daily life. Xilinx started giving staff members the third Friday of the month off during COVID-19, specifically to relieve employees from work-related stresses and to create a healthy boundary between work and personal life.
At the end of the day, a certain degree of strictness and consistency in procedures helps to regulate behaviour and facilitate individual performance and group interactions. So, while some companies, such as Facebook, are giving employees the option to go fully remote, it is more prudent to put in place a broad structure that allows for some days at home and some days in the office. In doing so, collaboration can continue onsite.
Communication is everything
Internal corporate communication is the lifeblood of modern-day organisations. Even more so now that businesses are managing remote work teams.
Extended periods of disconnection from the physical work environment and peers pose serious challenges for communication, resulting in work pressures that are differently and individually experienced by personnel. While the phenomenon of strained relations between remote workers and headquarters has long been commonplace, it has become particularly challenging for remote onboarding.
With on-site onboarding, things are fairly simple. New hires come to the office on their first day and get access to everything, from company email to any training or confidential material they need to read and sign. And even if there is a delay in receiving information and necessary materials on the first day on the job, it might be considered a trivial oversight by those physically onboarded. But what if a new hire’s office is his/her home? Such lags can be extremely frustrating and alienating.
Space missions are no different. If you are out of sight, you are also out of mind. Far-flung personnel have felt shunned and left out and noticed a lack of empathy on the part of Mission Control when it came to understanding the constraints and stressors of working remotely. NASA learned from this incident and built schedules that factor in regular communication and check-ins across teams while still allowing for flexibility in engagement and interaction.
Others did their part as well. For instance, let’s take the example of Salesforce. The company implemented a thoughtful remote onboarding strategy during the pandemic – emphasizing on building trust, promoting a positive workplace culture, and strengthening relationships – using a variety of fun social activities. Teams share a Spotify playlist for everyone on the squad to add new songs weekly, arrange virtual coffee catch-ups each morning and hold a happy hour on Thursday nights. Managers also regularly check-in with their new remote hire to see how they are doing. Not to mention playing some music to lighten up the mood as team members wait for a Zoom meeting to start.
In sum, managers must understand that person-to-person communication cues — both verbal and physical — are critical. They help employees create networks and bonds at work, instil organisational values, and convey systems and workflows.
The path forward
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, millions around the world have been participating in what’s been touted as one of the biggest social experiments of our time: A huge, randomised trial testing the idea that jobs can be done from kitchen tables and couches.
In many ways it has been a rousing success. The major perks being people having more flexibility and not having to commute.
But the experiment hasn’t been all positive. There are a number of challenges – encroachment of work in personal lives, loss of face-to-face communication, for instance – that employees continue to struggle with. For companies, helping their staff overcome these problems and successfully adapt to work from home will become more critical than ever in 2022. A perfect starting point for managers would be to take a few steps in an astronaut’s boots and learn from routines honed in a setting where isolation and confinement is the norm.
The lessons from space are very instructive. Organisations can succeed when employees based in the terrestrial capsules they call home have the benefits of structure and frequent communication with their co-workers and managers. A positive employee experience drives productivity, engagement, commitment, and performance. Companies and their leadership should understand this reality. If not, then “Houston, we have a problem”.
- Link up with Prof. Tanusree Jain on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: So far, so near: Managing virtual teams
- Discover Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin
- Apply for an MBA or EMBA at Trinity Business School.
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