Preparing for re-entry into the physical workplace: Lessons from NASA
Astronaut crews living and working in space experience as a matter of course what many of us experienced unexpectedly during the coronavirus pandemic. Consider these similarities:
- They are physically isolated for a long period of time from family, friends and the majority of their work colleagues.
- Their daily in-person interactions are limited to the few people they live with and their other interactions are intermediated through digital technology.
- Their home also serves as their workplace.
- They are surrounded by a dangerous environment that poses a threat to their physical health. (For them, the dangers include a lack of oxygen in outer space; for us, the danger has been the risk of contracting COVID-19.)
What was new and disorienting in our work lives and personal lives over the past year is the ongoing reality of an astronaut’s day.
So what does NASA know about the effects of living in relative social isolation for an extended period of time and then adjusting upon return to being around lots of people again?
Over the years, my colleagues and I have had the privilege of speaking and teaching workshops at NASA. Their interest in our work has been to help their leaders and managers learn to cultivate a culture of connection so that everyone can give their best performance. They’ve also been interested in how cultures of connection reduce the risk of negative outcomes that arise when people become disconnected and isolated from one another.
Previously I’ve written about how relational disconnection between NASA engineers and senior managers contributed to the fatal accidents of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Today, with the International Space Station in operation and anticipation of a multiyear human mission into deep space, protecting astronauts from the negative effects of disconnection and isolation has become an issue of greater interest to NASA scientists.
NASA knows that a person’s level of connection affects his or her well-being and performance, and that individual and collective connection is critical to a mission’s success.
The dangers of disconnection
Disconnection — which includes isolation (being alone) and loneliness (feeling alone even while in the presence of others) — is unhealthy. For starters, people who are disconnected experience lower sleep quality and diminished self-control to eat healthy and exercise. That sets them up for other issues.
Evidence of unhealthy coping behavior, as a result of the isolation and disconnection people have been experiencing during the pandemic, is showing up in research findings. The American Psychological Association’s survey of US adults in late February 2021 found that 61% of adults experienced undesired weight changes since the pandemic began, two in three adults (67%) report they have been sleeping more or less than desired, and nearly one in four adults (23%) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.
On top of changes to our physical health, we’ve had to navigate this period of uncertainty, stress and loss without our emotional and social support systems functioning as they did pre-pandemic.
Far too many people lost a family member or friend due to COVID-19 and had to grieve or process the trauma alone. Extended family members couldn’t be on hand to welcome a newborn child, graduates in 2020 didn’t get to cross a stage and receive their diploma to the cheers of the proud audience, and colleagues weren’t together to celebrate the completion of a major project or encourage one another during challenging times.
Trauma experts expect the mental health ramifications of the pandemic will rise once the physical threat of COVID-19 declines.
Disconnection and the negative emotions that come with it have been associated with poorer cognitive performance, impairment of executive control and self-regulation, narrowing of awareness and perspective, and lower levels of self-rated physical health. Given these findings, it should come as no surprise that researchers found greater employee loneliness leads to poorer task, team role and relational performance.
Disconnection may also be contributing to the high level of dissatisfaction at work. A recent Microsoft survey of 30,000 individuals worldwide found that 54% believe they are overworked, and 39% are exhausted. The pain is sufficiently high that 42% report they are considering leaving their jobs.
Protection through connection
As humans, we’re hardwired to connect. Connection makes us smarter, happier, more productive and more resilient to cope with stress. Teams and organizations with higher levels of connection have higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, better decision making, higher rates of innovation, and greater agility and adaptability.
These benefits add up to a powerful advantage. Organizations need a culture of connection in order to thrive for a sustained period of time, a case I make in "Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work."
NASA is intentional about helping astronauts in space maintain connection on multiple levels — as individuals and crew mates. To aid in remembering a set of principles and practices that will protect them from disconnection and the negative effects of isolation, NASA uses the word CONNECT. This mnemonic device stands for Community, Openness, Networking, Needs, Expeditionary mindset, Countermeasures and Training and preparation.
For example, CONNECT equips astronauts to:
- Be aware that their mental health affects the crew, and so it’s their responsibility to take care of themselves
- Be attentive to how their crew mates are doing and help them if they need it
- Recognize that feeling disconnected may cause them to not want to connect with others, and to ignore that feeling and purposely counteract it
- Reach out proactively in new and innovative ways to maintain connections with family and friends, and also with individuals who energize them and increase their positive emotions
- Think the best of others so that when someone does or says something that’s disconnecting, it isn’t viewed as having a malicious intent behind it
Dr. Tom Williams, element scientist for human factors and behavioral performance in the Human Research Program at the NASA Johnson Space Center, goes into greater detail about the actions NASA takes in this podcast.
Another proactive measure NASA employs to protect the mental health and well-being of the astronauts is to have resources available. During the year that astronaut Scott Kelly spent on the International Space Station, he had a scheduled conversation every two weeks with the “brain trust,” a group of psychologists and psychiatrists who helped him cope with isolation. Kelly has said the conversations helped him.
Facilitate reconnection as employees re-enter the workplace
Reflecting on his re-entry experience after that long mission, Kelly observed, “In my case, returning from space and isolation was instantaneous, shocking and anxiety-producing. I should’ve eased into it.”
As the current pandemic abates and the world opens up again, one proactive step leaders can take is educating employees to understand their human need for connection and what they might experience upon re-entry into a more complex social environment. This could be especially important for employees who live alone and have primarily relied on interactions in the workplace to meet their need for social connection.
As you prepare to return to the office, here are three issues to be mindful of:
Heads-up No. 1: “Lethargic” social skills
“Use it or lose it” is a mantra often employed as motivation to exercise and not neglect our physical fitness. It turns out that our social skills are like muscles, according to research. They, too, strengthen the more we use them and weaken when we use them less. Figuring out whether we’re physically out of shape is pretty straightforward. But how socially out of shape have we become during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The makeup of the team may not have changed over the past year, but how teammates relate to one another has. It’s good to recognize that, following an extended period of exercising their in-person social skills less, those skills will have become somewhat diminished for many people. Even if you are an extrovert who is counting down the days until the whole team is seated around the conference table again, don’t be surprised if you, too, feel a little off your game initially.
What’s going on? It may help people to understand that their unease is triggered subconsciously by their brain and autonomic nervous system. The amygdala, a part of the brain, is constantly monitoring the environment you’re in, assessing if someone or something may be a threat and sending signals throughout your body accordingly. (Think “fight, flight or freeze.”)
Working from home, with perhaps a pet, roommate or family member occasionally crossing your path and your interactions with colleagues limited to video calls, your brain has grown accustomed to a much different set of stimuli than commuting and having activity all around you in a physical workplace setting. You will need to adjust to reacting to the more complex social environment of being in the physical presence of co-workers.
Heads-up No. 2: “Foggy” cognitive skills
Many people today recognize that the pandemic has had an effect on them, including the onset of brain fog. You’re not alone if you’ve noticed changes in your memory, problem-solving abilities, or attention span.
NASA’s twin study found that upon Kelly’s return from his yearlong mission in space, he experienced a pronounced decrease in cognitive speed and accuracy that persisted for six months. For those wondering whether the fog will clear and their previous abilities might return, that’s encouraging news.
Heads-up No. 3: The ongoing need for connection
Leaders would be mistaken to think they can spend a little time on being social in the first weeks back and then check “reconnect the team” off their to-do list. The need for connection is not a one-time or short-term thing; connection should be the ongoing reality of how a team functions together.
And the kind of connection that fires people up and brings out their best is much more than merely chatting about what you did over the weekend or gathering for a slice of cake to celebrate a colleague’s birthday.
To set your team up well for a successful transition period, I encourage you to prioritize addressing the connection deficit that was deepened by the pandemic.
One way to do this is through providing online or in-person training to boost connection among employees. In the training, educate people on the harmful effects of loneliness and isolation, and the many benefits to individuals and groups that come from tapping into the power of human connection; support them by strengthening their connection and resilience skills; and equip them with context-specific attitudes, language and behaviors that boost connection on their team.
Taking connection seriously
As discussions are taking place about what work might look like post-pandemic — whether fully in the office or a hybrid approach of remote and in-person hours — leaders would be wise to also carefully consider the relational side of work and what they should do differently on the other side of this collective experience.
Having adjusted to working remotely, you might find that the overall level of engagement people have with colleagues and the organization has waned. Now would be a smart time to infuse the organization’s culture with attitudes and actions that foster connection, energy and enthusiasm. It will also make it easier to bring employees back into the physical workplace if they feel it will be a healthy and engaging environment with colleagues who value them as individuals and give them a voice.
Casting a vision for a culture of connection going forward and then equipping people to make it the norm will help your organization achieve its potential. As NASA knows, the ramifications of not addressing disconnection make it too important to ignore.
NASA's CONNECT method
- Community includes a mindset that the astronauts are benefiting the community of humankind by advancing space exploration. NASA has astronauts speak to students and community groups about the mission and share the awe of being in space. These interactions help reinforce a sense of meaning for the astronauts. NASA also arranges for astronauts to have calls with men and women they admire but have not met previously, such as a professional athlete or performer.
- Openness includes maintaining an open mindset. This includes reframing the inevitable challenges, conflict and stress they will experience as situations they can cope with by employing a positive attitude, mindfulness, self-care and team care.
- Networking includes proactively reaching out in new and innovative ways to maintain connections with family, friends and happy individuals who increase their positive emotions. It includes being aware that feeling disconnected may cause them to not want to connect with others. Understanding that is a possible response enables them to ignore that feeling and counteract it by reaching out to connect. This also includes thinking the best of others so that, when they do or say something that’s disconnecting, it isn’t viewed as having a malicious intent.
- Needs includes understanding that astronauts have physical and psychological needs that must be met in order for them to enjoy life and perform at their best, and that self-care and team care are essential. It includes being aware that their own mental health affects their crew and that it’s their responsibility to take care of themselves, to be aware of how their crew mates are doing and help them if they need it. This concept also includes being open to new ways to meet those human needs within the restrictions of their specific environment.
- Expeditionary mindset means that they view their mission as an adventure. They expect to encounter challenges. They are willing to learn from what has worked and not worked for themselves and others who’ve used expeditionary skills.
- Countermeasures include knowing actions astronauts can take to keep themselves healthy and help them feel positive connections with others so that they can cope positively with the inevitable stress that comes from challenging endeavors.
- Training and preparation includes knowing that intentional training and preparation is a must in order to bring out their best selves and do their best work. NASA begins with selecting individuals who have demonstrated they have coped well, in a team context, with adversity. These people have learned and grown from those experiences, which will help them achieve mission success.
Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of "Connection Culture" and "Fired Up or Burned Out."