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The Helm

An Astronaut’s Guide To Surviving Remote Work

Photo Credit: NASA Johnson on Flickr

Cramped and chaotic working quarters. Remote bosses breathing down your neck. Isolation from friends and colleagues. Some serious cabin fever.

We’ve probably all faced these issues adjusting to working from home during the COVID-19 crisis. But long before the pandemic, one group of people was wrestling with similar challenges, on a totally different scale.

Astronauts.

Think about it: work doesn’t really get much more remote than outer space. Astronauts have to spend weeks, sometimes months, at a time cooped up with the same people. They have to face down stress and loneliness and isolation and still get the job done. Granted, they don’t have to contend with crying kids or Zoom-bombing cats, but astronauts definitely know a thing or two about remote work.

That’s why I was thrilled to have a chance to chat recently on how to survive and thrive in our new WFH reality with astronaut Chris Hadfield. Called one of the most famous astronauts since Neil Armstrong, Chris has been to space on three occasions, including a five-month stint spent aboard the International Space Station (during which he recorded an unforgettable version of the David Bowie classic Space Oddity, which has been viewed 46 million times on YouTube.)

It’s hard to compress our conversation into snappy sound bites, but here are seven key insights on thriving in the WFH-era that I took away the interview:

Getting past “used to be:” First, some tough love from Chris. Yes, lots of us are missing the “good old days:” working alongside colleagues, having a quiet office to go to, even being able to hop out for a quick coffee break. But we’ve always had to live and work within a certain set of boundaries. For the moment, we’ve just got some new ones. Though the normal reaction is to rebel against those boundaries — and reminisce about how things used to be — accepting things is far more helpful

Chris explains that he learned this while living in the International Space Station, spending 144 straight days (146, if you count the ride there and back) with other astronauts inside a living space no larger than a modest home. In one respect, he was trapped, stuck a full 253 miles above Earth with absolutely nowhere to go. But, then again, hadn’t he been trapped on Earth his whole life — gravity bound and cut off from the rest of the universe? Rather than dwelling on the new constraints, he refocused energy on new opportunities (including playing guitar while floating weightless) and made the most of the experience.

The “everybody’s a jerk” epiphany: We’ve probably all had “one of those days” lately. Everybody on Zoom is being impossible. Colleagues cut you off; clients ignore your suggestions; your boss still hasn’t figured out screen sharing. And your family’s even worse — kids keep barging in; pets are racing around the house. You’re about to lose it and let them know what a bunch of jerks they all are.

Don’t. Chris explains that he had plenty of those days on the spaceship. But he realized something: when every single other crew member was acting like a jerk, the problem wasn’t them. It was him. He was the jerk. They were just responding to his energy, and his mood was warping how he perceived them. To regain perspective, he’d give himself a timeout and spend 30 minutes composing himself and decompressing (figuratively, of course). Seems like an approach that could be just as handy here on Earth.

Connection matters (and we’ve got it good): Chris points out that on his initial flight in 1995, contact with Earth was limited to communication with Mission Control and the occasional ham radio transmission lasting a couple seconds. By the time he embarked on his third flight in 2012–2013, the Internet was accessible on the space station. He was able to communicate with people all over the world using social platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. For Chris, the psychological benefits were profound, relieving isolation and enriching his experience immeasurably.

The pandemic has led to disruptive changes in so many aspects of work and life. But it’s worth pausing to imagine how isolating all this would be without the technologies of connection we have at our disposal today. Social media, while not perfect, enables sharing ideas and experiences with people around the block and around the globe. And, as much we’re all “Zoomed out,” video takes that intimacy to a whole new level. Chris notes that whenever there was a complex issue or problem on the space station — like failing circuitry or an experiment with nanoparticles — they’d use video to get it right. So turn on that Zoom camera at home, even if you’re having a bad hair day!

The restorative power of radio silence: So, yeah, modern communication technology has made the WFH experience possible. But there’s a flipside: for many of us, working from home now means we’re “always on.” The stresses of work are never more than a Slack message, a Zoom call or an old-fashioned email away.

Chris has a powerful analogy to illustrate the restorative power of taking a break and going radio silent. As the International Space Station races along at 17,100 miles per hour, a network of geostationary satellites keep it in constant communication with Mission Control. But there’s one, small exception. For around four minutes or so — somewhere over the Indian Ocean — communication cuts out. Mission Control uses this interruption to run to the bathroom, grab a snack and come back recharged. Takeaway: we’re all better off with a little forced downtime from our devices. Don’t forget to take it!

The danger of the “step out” moment: This one doesn’t have a lot to do with outer space, but it’s got everything to do with right now. I know so many people of all ages who are just fed up these days. They’ve had enough of getting pinged on Slack and trying to figure out FaceTime. They’re overwhelmed by new tools and new paradigms. They just want things to go back to business as usual.

Chris has a sobering antidote for all this. Ask yourself: What year did I decide to “step out”? When did I step away from adopting new ideas and trying new things? What decade or year am I voluntarily stuck in? It’s a little scary, but as we get older we tend to get fixed in time and remarkably inflexible in our attitudes. Taking stock, noting our blindspots and making a deliberate effort to step back in can be extraordinarily empowering. And remember: things will never move as slowly as they do right now … so buckle up for the ride ahead.

Redefining your “we:” This piece of advice goes well beyond just remote office dynamics. When frustration boils over — in work, life or society at large — there’s a tendency to point the finger and assign blame. We’re right; they’re wrong. We get it; they don’t. An “us” vs. “them” mentality prevails, and divisions grow until they seem insurmountable.

From space, things look very different. Chris points out that, whether flying over his hometown or cities half a world away, the scenery looked remarkably similar: river, harbor’s edge, train tracks, etc. Orbiting once every 92 minutes, he realized Earth wasn’t that big at all. Ultimately, human experience is remarkably uniform, and the divisions between us largely imaginary. His “we” expanded — beyond his own particulars and places to cover the whole planet. Now, more than ever, that seems worth remembering.

The future is more Star Trek than Star Wars: Let me nerd out for just a second here … Star Wars, as great as it is, presents an adversarial and even dystopian view of the future — a struggle between light and dark filled with intergalactic violence. Star Trek, on the other hand, offers a far more utopian vision: humanity (and non-humans, too) coming together to explore space and advance science.

To Chris (and me, as well) the future awaiting all of us is far more Star Trek than Star Wars. Yes, we face extraordinary challenges, from weathering the pandemic to addressing systemic racism and inequality and finding solutions to climate change. But, as a species, we’re doing a better job taking care of each other now than at any point in the past, whether measured by average lifespan, infant mortality, global poverty rates or countless other metrics. Times are hard, but there is real reason for rational optimism about where we’re headed. Zooming out, with that kind of anthropological perspective in mind, can make all the difference.

A huge thank you to Chris for taking the time to drop some serious knowledge on me, especially in the midst of an exceptionally busy schedule. Apart from working on his fourth book (a work of historical fiction), he teaches at the University of Waterloo, runs a stream at the Creative Destruction Lab working on a 10-second COVID detection test using multispectral light, and chairs the Open Lunar Foundation, which is helping advance a peaceful, cooperative future on the moon. Oh yeah, he also offers an awesome MasterClass on space exploration and gives lectures around the world. You can keep up with Chris’ latest projects on his YouTube channel.

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Business leadership advice, from real business leaders. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.

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Ryan Holmes

Ryan Holmes

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

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