Work Reentry Lessons from NASA
By John Millen
Before the pandemic, I traveled almost every week to give a speech or coach teams of leaders. As a confirmed extrovert, that was the life I loved. While I converted my business to virtual with a studio in my home, it never felt the same.
I’m sure you lived your own version of this story, too. We all have.
Fast forward these 15 months and the world is opening up. In the past two weeks I’ve experienced many firsts: traveling on a plane, meeting clients face to face and shaking hands, restarting my gym membership, swimming laps in a pool.
The list goes on, and while it’s exciting, some of it feels weird or awkward. And as businesses reopen and search for a new hybrid model, we’re all going to experience some of this odd reentry.
That’s why I was intrigued this week when I stumbled upon a great metaphor for what we’ve been through working from home (WFH): astronauts returning from the International Space Station (ISS).
Think about life on the ISS and our WFH:
- Astronauts are enclosed in a confined space for up to a year.
- They have very little privacy, and their workspace is near their sleep space.
- They have only their few colleagues to talk with in person.
- They speak with their employers on virtual screens.
- If conflicts arise, they have literally nowhere to go.
Does some of this sound familiar? I could go on, but you get the idea: They’re trapped in a confined space with people who may be getting on their nerves.
NASA has thought long and hard about the physical and psychological issues of confining human beings in space and how to help them reenter the world below.
I discovered this on a NASA program cleverly called “Houston, We Have a Podcast.” It’s an interview with Dr. Tom Williams, element scientist for human factors and behavioral performance in the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
How people live and work together in confined spaces may be the lynchpin for the success of planned multi-year missions to Mars.
NASA uses the acronym “CONNECT” as a reminder of the most important factors to keep astronauts mentally and physically well-adapted. Each letter has many components but let me give you a brief insight from NASA that might help as we reenter life and business in a new hybrid workplace:
NASA uses many tools to help astronauts see their role in helping humanity by exploring space. Focusing on their service to humankind gives meaning to their difficult work. As you move forward in this uncharted territory, focus on purpose, reminding yourself and your team who you serve and how you help them.
Having an open mindset is critical in space as astronauts face unexpected obstacles, stress and conflicts. Your positive attitude can help people to reframe problems into challenges to be met. Be transparent about the fact you, too, are finding your way.
As Dr. Williams said, “there’s an old saying in psychology that good mental health is not the absence of conflict but how you handle the conflict. And, so, when we are more open to finding more positive ways to adapt or handle conflict, there’s always going to be the opportunity for a more positive outcome.”
NASA chooses flight crews partly based on how their personalities will complement one another. In space, astronauts are encouraged to maintain contact with friends and family—people who will make them happy.
“When you look at some of the research related to being happy, finding ways to connect to people near you that are happy increases your own sense of happiness,” Dr. Williams said.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to separate the deeply human needs of life from the responsibilities of the workplace. The term “work-life balance” seems almost quaint today.
Few organizations have studied human physical and psychological needs as well as NASA. It charges its astronauts with responsibility for the care of their own mental health and awareness of how their crewmates are coping. They are encouraged to be creative in adapting self-care to their circumstances.
Astronauts come with a growth mindset. They should see their mission as a great adventure. This mindset allows for a positive reframing of situations. They view the challenges as opportunities to learn new skills and explore.
“With our crew, we really focus on identified spaceflight hazards. How do we develop countermeasures so that those hazards don’t have a dramatic or an adverse impact on the crew?” Dr. Williams said. For instance, to counter loneliness and isolation, NASA will send care packages and arrange communication with families.
As we plan reentry into a hybrid workspace, what are the foreseeable issues you can prepare for? Communication, scheduling, productivity and other issues might be eased with countermeasures you and your team consider.
NASA is a premier training and learning organization. It chooses people who have faced adversity, grown and achieved success. But that’s not enough.
Astronauts receive technical training, of course, but also training in resilience and mindfulness for facing down the challenges of their restrictive environments.
We're obviously not astronauts but after more than a year of isolation let's consider the lessons of those who must isolate to achieve their mission.