What Astronauts Can Teach Us about Working Remotely
Organizations Jul 29, 2020
What Astronauts Can Teach Us about Working Remotely
Space: the final frontier—for learning how to keep your team motivated during extended periods of isolation and confinement.
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles based on Kellogg Executive Education webinars focused on COVID-19 and crisis management.
What happens to teamwork during extended periods of isolation and confinement?
While that sounds like a question tailored for much of today’s housebound workforce, it’s actually a research topic that professors Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch have studied in an entirely different context: space travel.
Each Thursday, Kellogg faculty are offering free webinars on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses, markets, and careers. You can sign up for upcoming sessions, hosted by Kellogg Executive Education, here.
The researchers never thought “that we would be drawing conclusions from space teams to our teams here on Earth,” DeChurch says.
But they did just that during a recent webinar from Kellogg Executive Education. Contractor, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, and DeChurch, a professor in Northwestern’s School of Communication, discussed their research with NASA and shared some insights that workers and leaders can use to help remote teams function cohesively.
For example, astronauts are acutely aware of their organization’s lofty goals and how their own individual efforts fit into that. So even when the task is mundane—such as practicing putting away tools one more time—they have a clear sense of how that work fits into the bigger picture.
Leaders here on Earth should likewise ensure that all of their employees understand how their work, however high-minded or mundane, fits into the organization’s goals. This is particularly important, Contractor says, if you’re onboarding a new employee.
“Talk to each of them at some length about what the bigger picture is, what the dream is, what the vision is, and why what they are doing is a significant component within that,” he says. “As a leader, it is really one of the most important things you can do.”
Contractor and DeChurch also advised leaders to be aware of the “third-quarter phenomenon,” the idea that teams, whether on football fields or space stations, tend to see slumps in mood and motivation in the third quarter. So team leaders need to manage those slumps, perhaps by offering more support, introducing new routines, or weaving in some light-hearted moments where humor can help restore people’s energies.
But, in the midst of a continuing crisis like COVID-19, how do you know when the third quarter has arrived? After all, few remote workers know when their offices or their children’s schools will reopen.
Contractor says this unknown actually doesn’t matter that much. “If we don’t have [a timeline] we make one up in our minds and we use those as a way to pace ourselves,” he says.
DeChurch explains that leaders need to recognize the importance of having the whole team working on the same clock, even if it’s “a manufactured clock, and to recognize explicitly when it needs to be changed.” This could mean working toward a particular reopening goal, even if it ends up needing to be pushed back. At least that way the full team knows what the timeline is and will sync up their “quarters” accordingly.
Another lesson from space: crews do not like being micromanaged remotely.
Contractor told the story of the U.S. Skylab crew, which in 1974 rebelled against mission control.
“The crew was so completely frustrated with the structured tasks they were given,” Contractor says, that they simply shut off communication with mission control for a period of time. “It’s referred to as the first mutiny in space, or the first strike in space.”
The issue, DeChurch says, is that leaders and their team members can “have misaligned needs” when working remotely. Leaders want to regain some of the control that they’ve lost in not being able to see work being done, while their staff want a sense of autonomy in their work, which makes it feel more meaningful to them.
“It’s important to recognize that this discord can happen,” she says.
You can watch the full webinar here and see previous articles from this series here.
About the Writer
Emily Stone is the senior editor at Kellogg Insight.
Most Popular This Week
How Much Do Boycotts Affect a Company’s Bottom Line?There’s often an opposing camp pushing for a “buycott” to support the company. New research shows which group has more sway.
5 Takeaways on the State of ESG InvestingESG investing is hot. But what does it actually deliver for society and for shareholders?
Could Bringing Your "Whole Self" to Work Curb Unethical Behavior?Organizations would be wise to help employees avoid compartmentalizing their personal and professional identities.
When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
Which Form of Government Is Best?Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
What Went Wrong at AIG?Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than GoodStudies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a LayoffIt’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They TakeA new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
In a World of Widespread Video Sharing, What’s Real and What’s Not?A discussion with a video-authentication expert on what it takes to unearth “deepfakes.”
College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
More in Organizations