March 22, 2021
remote work

Employees Are A Bit Like Astronauts In Space Right Now

While vaccines progress, the reality is that the pandemic continues and working from home remains the norm for many employees.

Thus, senior leaders may want to consider a different manner to understand the situation’s grimness. I argue that a large dose of human empathy is in need.

What if leaders thought of their team members as astronauts on the International Space Station?

Despite the lack of gravity, astronauts experience very similar circumstances to that of employees working from home. Reflect on the following realities for both working-from-home team members and astronauts:

  • Confined to a closed space for an extended period
  • Limited to those they’re living with for in-person exchanges (If they are living with other people.)
  • Unable to be face-to-face with family members
  • Only able to conduct video calls for social interaction

All of this is to say that leaders on Earth might learn from NASA and how they train astronauts to deal with the reality of long periods of isolation.

NASA is quite aware that mood levels can change if steps are not taken to prevent isolationism’s detrimental effects. Ground Control does not want to see cognition, behavorial or morale decreases. If stress and anxiety increase—if sleep abnormalities take shape—the astronaut’s performance becomes questionable.

This is not a good math equation for NASA. Lives are at stake, after all. (And don’t forget about the high cost of any space mission.)

How NASA Prevents Astronaut Isolationism

When you’re dealing with millions of investment dollars, that last thing NASA wants is unmotivated and unhappy astronauts. We mere mortals on Earth could learn something from our astronaut colleagues.

NASA’s lead scientist for Human Factors and Behavioral Performance Element, Tom Williams, developed an acronym to help outline good psychological health. Stemming from the Human Research Program (HRP), the seven terms that make up the acronym “CONNECT” help teach astronauts how to cope with the inevitable negative consequences of being alone or isolated. It’s this acronym that you may want to introduce to your team members on Earth.

Community:

“The Moon landing helped people around the world feel more united because they felt the sense of belonging, of oneness, with shared hopes and dreams fulfilled,” Williams said. When leaders point out to employees how important their work is to the greater community, self-worth increases. A leader’s role is to highlight the organization’s purpose and to remind team members that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of community will help link the team despite being apart.

Openness:

“People who are open tend to be more resilient because they see more ways to approach a problem and adapt to life’s challenges,” Williams said. The pandemic continues to be a significant challenge. How open are you with your team? The more transparently you outline the strategy, what’s going right and wrong while asking for employee feedback and input, the more likely you will help your employees adapt to being alone. Your team is full of ideas and answers. Open up your heart and mind and start asking them for their insights. They will feel much more a part of something than remaining close-minded.

Networking:

Being able to network with others is critical during the pandemic. But it doesn’t all have to be about work. Why not introduce a little bit of fun into your networking options. (I’ve written about five ways in which to have some fun over here on Forbes.) In space, NASA ensures the astronauts are in close contact with their family, friends, doctors, and other health provides. But care packages are critical to their networking strategy, too. The care packages can “include personal items, like family photos, magazines and a favourite snack help them feel linked to home.” NASA also arranges for drive-by parades to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays. They also get food delivered to the astronaut’s family’s home.  

Needs:

NASA ensures that the astronauts are exercising, eating healthy, and getting plenty of rest and sleep. As a leader on Earth, are you asking these sorts of questions of your team members? Why not? These sorts of personal conversations are no longer taboo. The more you relate to employees by asking about the basic needs of life, the more they look to you as a human being and not solely as a boss.

Expeditionary Mindset:

“Self- and team care, cultural communication, group living and teamwork are essential expeditionary skills,” said James Picano, an operational psychologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “In training, astronauts practice skills in how to manage conflict, de-escalate situations, keep personal work areas clean and care for another crewmate.” Back on Earth, I suggest that leaders encourage their team members to think differently, try out new ideas, and look past the role or team function’s norms. Get creative, and help employees unleash their inner creativity. When leaders invoke the “expeditionary mindset,” they are allowing employees to seek out new challenges.

Countermeasures:

NASA wants astronauts to journal during their time in space. This allows the astronauts to vent, unleash angst, and cope with stress. In essence, countermeasures are mindfulness techniques. What are you doing as a leader to help your team members handle the pressure of isolationism and another Zoom video meeting? It’s not enough to simply assign tasks. You must tap into the employee’s well-being and suggest ways in which to remain motivated yet relaxed. One company that I work with has purchased the Calm app for all 30,000 plus employees. It’s a beautiful example of countermeasures.

Training and Preparation:

Astronauts are highly trained and prepared for their missions. Did you know that they continue their training and preparation while in space? It doesn’t end on Earth. So, as a leader of people, what have you been doing to ensure that your people’s skill development continues during the pandemic? When I’ve been hired to conduct keynotes or workshops over the past year, they’ve all been completed virtually. They occur because leaders have seen the need to continue developing their teams. However, many organizations and leaders have forgone any training either because they believe it’s not good enough virtually, or they’re just waiting for face-to-face to return. That’s as good a leadership strategy as pretending the pandemic isn’t real. Leaders: invest in your people and train them. Now!

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My 4th book, “Lead. Care. Win. How to Become a Leader Who Matters,” was recently published. Amy. C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls it “an invaluable roadmap.” 16+ hour, self-paced online leadership development program is also available. Nearly 100 videos across nine lessons.

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