What Space Missions Can Teach Us About Remote Work

A successful adaptation to working from home calls for the development of new routines — similar to ones perfected by astronauts.

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After almost two years of working from home, the writing is on the wall for office arrangements: Remote work in some permutation is here to stay.

But the home-work environment continues to be muddled with challenges. It presents extended periods of labor in what are often confined spaces, a tight integration of overlapping personal and professional time, and limited physical social interactions with colleagues. Many people have reported losing their basic sense of when days begin and end: In a survey in the U.K., more than 80% of the respondents said they experienced changes to their perception of time during the coronavirus pandemic. The absence of a clear transition from weekdays at the office to weekends at home has been disorienting.

In our research on the business of space, teleworking, and the relationship between technology and isolation — and conversations with 10 middle management teams at technology companies, including Google, Oracle, Xilinx, Microsoft, Salesforce, Indeed, and Facebook — we have identified a model for how to manage a typical hybrid work environment: the organization of work during space missions. There are surprisingly helpful cues managers can take from how astronauts structure their time and their routines that lead to better planning and execution of work in a compact environment.

We suggest that embracing some of the practices of astronauts can help employees successfully adapt to the future of work.

The Power of Routine

During a crisis, routines undergo changes and evolve. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have found ourselves working from home in our pajamas, having breakfast while logging on to Zoom meetings, and working beyond official work hours. These routines are neither healthy nor sustainable.

Routines have great value. Defined by Martha Feldman and Brian Pentland as “repetitive, recognizable patterns of interdependent actions carried out by multiple actors,” routines enable organizational work to stay on track through habit-forming behaviors. Their institutionalization over time creates prompts that trigger specified responses.

For individuals, their observations and experiences within social organizations inform their understanding of everyday routines, which in turn affect workflows. Whether it is checking emails at the start of each day, having spontaneous catch-ups with colleagues at a coffee station, or looking forward to Friday evening post-work drinks, the repetition of workplace routines creates a sense of stability, predictability, and safety.

Meeting 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 that support these environments.

We draw on lessons from the typical space mission, which is representative of a physically disconnected work structure between the mission control — aka the office headquarters — and far-flung, 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.

Three Routines to Borrow From Space Missions

While the dimensions and levels of hybridity within different functional units of a company may vary, there are three strategies from which all teams could benefit.

Manufacture zeitgebers to build new rhythms. Zeitgebers are external environmental cues that humans use to regulate their internal biological rhythms. They include sunlight, darkness, and changes in temperature, as well as exercising, eating, and engaging in social interactions — things that affect energy levels and send physiological signals to the body to be alert. Merriam-Webster notes that the word derives from the German Zeit, which means “time,” and Geber, which means “giver.” Zeitgebers set the pace of our days.

When these environmental cues change significantly, people’s circadian rhythms are disrupted. This affects their emotions, moods, and, eventually, performance outcomes.

Space missions typically involve extended periods of time spent in a confined physical setting. Although astronauts have hectic work schedules that keep them very busy, they have to adjust to alterations to their natural zeitgebers — 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. They also see multiple sunrises and sunsets a day — as many as 16 sunrises every 24 hours on the International Space Station as it orbits Earth.

To deal with these disrupted zeitgebers, astronauts on space missions mark the passage of time by dining together, participating in group recreational activities, celebrating holidays, and interacting with their families via audio or video. Mission managers structure long-duration expeditions with intermediate goals, celebrating each milestone in ways that highlight the progress being made toward the overall mission goal.

As organizations move to establish more permanent options for hybrid working, it becomes imperative for managers to account for lost zeitgebers and build new ones. The Salesforce team we interviewed told us that “you are encouraged to have a routine such that nobody works much outside of 8:30 to 5:30.” Contractbook, a Danish contract management platform, has introduced a variety of zeitgebers for its virtual workforce, including biweekly town halls, watercooler calls, selfie days, and a virtual gong to celebrate deal closures. (Oracle also uses a virtual gong over Slack every time a new sale closes.) Routines such as these allow staff members to celebrate small wins and replicate casual interactions with colleagues — even those they’ve never met in person.

Plan for both structure and flexibility. Workplace structure refers to how individual departments, managers, and teams are organized and collaborate with one another. Office layouts might include open spaces to allow for fluidity in interactions across various teams. Different forms of productivity can be supported through hot-desk options for types of work that need privacy, with conference rooms available for quick meetings and bigger group interactions.

Remote working has resulted in a complete disruption of this open office concept. Instead of having an agile environment with active physical and social interaction and plentiful open space, the remote environment is exemplified by extended periods of rigidity, both in a physical sense and a social sense.

This rigidity is characteristic of space missions. Astronauts respond to this condition by observing a set schedule and routines on weekdays, with greater flexibility on weekends. Time is also set aside for performing housekeeping duties. The goal is to create organization and consistency within the confines of a rigid environment.

When establishing hybrid work arrangements, managers must encourage workers to set boundaries and establish a balance between structure and flexibility to ensure that work does not extend into all aspects of daily life. Xilinx adopted a new policy during COVID-19 of giving people the third Friday of the month off, specifically “to decompress employees from work-related stresses and to create a healthy boundary between work and our whole selves.” This policy introduces a new type of zeitgeber intended to reset work cycles.

Space missions model the ways that a certain degree of strictness and consistency in procedures helps to regulate behavior and facilitate individual performance and group interactions. While some companies, such as Facebook, are allowing employees the choice to go fully remote, we suggest that it is more prudent to put in place a broad structure that allows for some days at home and some days in the office so that team collaboration can continue onsite.

Prioritize internal communication. Internal corporate communication is a vital part of modern-day organizations. Extended physical disconnection can create 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. For instance, while a delay in receiving information and necessary materials the first day on the job might be considered a trivial oversight by those physically onboarded, it is especially frustrating and alienating for new remote employees.

On space missions, distantly located personnel have felt abandoned and ignored and perceived a lack of empathy on the part of Mission Control in terms of comprehending the constraints and stressors of working remotely. In fact, it’s normal for remote personnel to be hypersensitive, and a typical human response is predictably exaggerated by the conditions of isolation and confinement. NASA learned from these incidents and built schedules that factor in regular communication and check-ins across teams while still allowing for flexibility in engagement and interaction.

Managers must understand that person-to-person communication cues — both verbal and physical — are critical. They help employees create networks and bonds within the office, inculcate organizational values, and convey systems and workflows. Salesforce has made concerted efforts to make collaboration and culture-building top priorities during the pandemic: A purposeful process for remote onboarding emphasizes building trust and strengthening relationships, using a variety of fun social activities, including sharing Spotify playlists and holding virtual coffee catch-ups each morning and a happy hour Thursday nights. “My manager calls me two times a week — not to say, ‘How is x, y, z, going?’ or ‘Why you haven’t done something?’ but to ask how I am doing,” a new remote hire told us. Salesforce also plays music on Zoom when team members are waiting for a meeting to start, something this new hire said “really lightens the mood.”

What we have learned from space about remote work is instructive: Organizations can succeed when employees who are based in the terrestrial capsules they call home have the benefits of structure and frequent communication with their peers and managers.


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