NASA, remote work and social isolation

Apollo spacecraft

NASA's experience in overcoming astronauts' sense of isolation holds lessons for managing teams working remotely.

"For the last six months our company has been working remotely, planning to return to offices no earlier than summer 2021. I have a great team and we are working very hard to launch our new product. However, lately I have been a little worried about two of my team members who live by themselves. I fear for their mental health during this time, in which they are so isolated while engaging in an aggressive project timeline. I noticed they work around the clock, even at night and on weekends. I worry that they do not have any work-life balance. They told me that some days they find it difficult to concentrate and stay energized. Sometimes they join a meeting wearing their pajamas. For me, this is an indication of their poor mental state, like they do not care anymore. How do I protect them from burnout? Their productivity has stayed intact so far, but I want to make sure they stay healthy, focused, energetic, and effective for the future." - Orit, senior product manager at a global software company

Many of us are working to find creative solutions for bridging the gaps created by our physical separation and isolation. These gaps might even intensify during periods of stress and workload. One organization has been dealing successfully with these challenges for over fifty years, namely NASA. Astronauts sent to the International Space station spend six months in isolation conditions while maintaining an intensive work routine and communicating with the team at the headquarters. What can we learn from NASA's accumulated knowledge of how to effectively cope with the working conditions that are being imposed on us today?

What does the research tell us?

For years, NASA invested in studying how to enhance astronauts’ resilience and mental health, to ensure high cognitive and behavioral abilities during space missions. The prolonged missions, while coping with loneliness, social remoteness and extreme conditions, can negatively impact astronauts’ ability to perform highly complex tasks and deal with emergency situations, which by themselves generate a great deal of pressure and mental overload. The ways in which space crews operate can teach leaders how to build more connected and high preforming remote teams.

NASA's research found a number of key elements for building resilience and psychological health that can help astronauts cope with stress and difficult situations:

Community: One-way astronauts endure isolation in space is knowing that their work has an impact on society and the broader community. Onboard the space station, astronauts participate in events to talk about human spaceflight with various groups on earth over multiple communication channels.

Openness: Open-minded people tend to have greater mental resilience because they see alternative ways to solve problems and adapt to life challenges. NASA's study found that people with a high level of openness tend to have a positive, flexible, and helpful approach to tasks.

Networking: Family communication is important. Crews on space station keep close contact with friends and family to feel less separated from their loved ones on earth.

Moreover, it has been proven that developing personal relationships beyond work is beneficial for delivering better business results. A study examined two groups of people negotiating with each other using only e-mail. 55% of the participants who were instructed to focus solely on the negotiations at hand were able to close a deal. This contrasts with a 90% success rate among the participants who were encouraged to share personal information and find shared relationships with each other before the negotiation began. The study found that sharing personal information builds trust and sympathy, an element that accelerates and improves the negotiation process.

Physical needs: To stay physiologically, emotionally, and psychologically fit in isolation, astronauts exercise, eat healthily, follow a sleep and work schedule, and make time for leisure activities. In addition, they keep the shared physical space clean and tidy, to make sure the crew, coming from different countries, stay considerate of each other’s cultures and living habits.

Self-awareness: Another part of crew readiness research focuses on developing solutions that reduce the stress of isolation. Astronauts write in journals to express their feelings. Mindfulness and other coping strategies can help ease a crew’s stress and psychologically reframe a situation to turn negatives into positives.

Insights for business executives and employees

  • One of the ways to build a cohesive team is by emphasizing the team’s goals and the value delivered to its customers, partners, and overall society. Understanding how the team makes a positive difference can boost motivation and engagement.
  • Hiring open, flexible, and adaptive team members increases the likelihood that they will be successful in coping with a fast changing environment and overcoming business challenges. These qualities should be brought into consideration during the team talent selection processes.
  • Having meaning relationships and interactions between coworkers is valuable and should be encouraged. Creating an inclusive environment in which each can bring their whole self to work can have a positive influence on teamwork and business outcomes. In order to encourage these relationships, managers can conduct virtual fun events, competitive games, celebrate team members’ birthdays, and host casual meetings without an agenda.
  • Working from home can blur the work-life boundaries, creating a 24-hour workday, especially for those who work across multiple time zones. Some might also neglect self-care routines. Maintaining those boundaries and self-care routines can re-charge the team members with positive energies and good spirit.

Want to share your work dilemmas? Email us at g@globes.co.il

Professor Amir Grinstein studies and teaches pro-social marketing and entrepreneurship at Northeastern University in Boston and VU in Amsterdam. He writes on Twitter about behavioral research @AmirGrinstein

Yana Shechterman is an organizational consultant, executive coach, and part-time lecturer at Northeastern University in Boston. yana@yanashechterman.com

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on September 7, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Apollo spacecraft
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