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.

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