Managing From a Distance: 3 Game-Changing Lessons From NASA

Remote work is the future.

No scratch that remote is now.

Just recently, there was a news feature about American workers crossing the border into Mexico—holding court there while working remotely for American companies.

Remote work isn’t for the beach-hoppin’-kombucha-poppin’ digital nomads anymore. It’s a permanent fixture of how humans collaborate and produce value.

The arrangement has its share of challenges for both employers and employees. One of the thorniest seems to be, “How in the world am I going to manage a group of people I have never seen or met in person?”

managing business from home like nasa

With distance comes difficulties. It erects barriers to communication and impedes easy access.

But there’s a way forward. We take a few pages from NASA’s playbook. If there’s an organization that knows a thing or two about remote work, it’s the one that employs workers for outer space. It’s so remote it’s beyond global…it’s interplanetary.

How NASA Does Remote Work?

#1 It starts with who they choose for the mission.

From the thousands of applications received, only a few are chosen…

You can already imagine how NASA is flooded annually by people for a dream of a lifetime. In March 2020 alone, NASA officers had to sort through over 12,000 applications for the intensive Astronaut Candidate training program.

The competition is so stiff and so stringent that being extremely intelligent won’t be enough. One has to possess the combination of the “right stuff” that includes discipline, flexibility, the ability to work well in teams and as an individual, and the composure to think under extreme pressure.

In business, when forming a remote team, you need to have the right mix of skills and talent. Just as the best chefs work only with the best ingredients, you need to do more than just a cursory check of the available applicants out there, and vet and test the competency of people who’ll be batting for you.

It will be more of a question of fit. You look at the tasks the role involves and find an individual/s who ideally meets the qualifications. Pick someone who has the appropriate experience, skills and attitude for the position.

And from that, you move on to the second key to effectively managing remotely.

#2 Then it’s about how they train them.

NASA has some of the most complex and comprehensive training programs in human history. Candidates spend months and years on end learning to operate equipment, conduct experiments, execute routines and scenarios, logging hours upon hours of nuanced movements like turning a knob left or right in simulated environments.

Nobody gets to space by accident. When an astronaut takes his seat at launch, behind him are countless hours of briefings and repetition that prepared him for the mission.

In any business or organization, the quality of the training comes through in the quality of products or services rendered. As well, training will be reflected in the bottom line.

In a remote work situation where managers do not have a line of sight to how employees behave minute by minute, training is the next best thing.

After landing the best candidate you can get, you then optimize by empowering that employee with the best training you can give.

This is when you show the new guy the ropes–what works, what doesn’t. Let him benefit from your experience so he doesn’t fumble around when it’s “Go time!” Because things have a tendency to come around. Cutting corners in training will haunt you down the line.

#3 Finally, it’s all about communication.

How do you communicate with someone in space? (Managing remote workers often feels like Mission Control talking to astronauts in the International Space Station.)

When talking to somebody floating in the wilderness of space, you have got to make sure that you get it right. Each move is critical and a simple misunderstanding could mean losses in the billions, or worse, loss of lives.

(NASA, over the years, has learned to simplify communication. Yes, they do have their Nasa-speak. But training ensures everybody is on the same page—so that when somebody says, “SCET is equal to ERT minus OWLT!” people know exactly what’s up.)

nasa remote working

Communications in space get so direct and so simple it turns nonverbal. Astronauts can, for example, communicate nonverbally through hand signals and still understand exactly what is being said.

For businesses and organizations with remote work arrangements, good communication should begin from “Day 1” and should never go out of style.

To managers on a Zoom call, with a group of “astronauts” who have their own “missions,” here are 4 things you need to remember:

  • Early & Clearly

Say you are onboarding a new hire.

Set all expectations, routines, and standard operating procedures early on. This is the most foundational thing to do. Thoroughly orient the newcomer, briefing him on the tools, systems and resources available for him. Apprise him of his role and what standards are expected.

Lay down the rules early, not leaving anything to chance, or assuming that the fellow, as a bright individual, will simply figure things out over time.

And as a general rule, all communications should be as simple as possible. One of the biggest causes of miscommunications is the lack of clarity in the message. Speak plainly, directly and simply.

“Early & Clearly” will save you so much time and allow you to effectively deal with employees from different cultural backgrounds.

  • Outcomes Not Activities

Micromanaging never bodes well for a team. Even when teams meet at a central location or office, micromanaging only leads to leadership burnout, and morale depletion. Watching their every move prevents people from fully engaging with the task.

(Even for a remote team, today’s tech and tools can lead to micromanagement.)

But instead of doing that, turn your sights on the outcomes—the results of assigned tasks. Instead of focusing on activities, look at the quality and the consistency of the outcomes and give your feedback from that angle.

As long as they get things done, let them have some breathing room. People vary in their “process,” not to mention their domestic situations. Allow them enough room to operate, and they might just surprise you—not to mention, be a little less overworked yourself.

  • People…Meet Resources!

There’s only so much you can communicate or explain in a crowded Zoom meeting. And a lot of folks feel even more conscious and uneasy in a virtual call. The best thing a manager can do is to connect his team with as many resources, sources, samples, benchmarks and links as they can handle.

For example, you’re tasking the team to come up with a marketing campaign. Instead of explaining in detail how you want the outcomes to be, point them to a link that epitomizes what you want. Or, going about it the other way, you can say, “Take a look at company X’s campaign. We don’t want that. We want ours to be more dynamic.”

Give your guys their marching orders, but send them off with everything they need to be successful. Don’t assume that those links and resources will come up in their research. Save everybody time and give it to them.

  • See the Unseen, Hear the Unspoken

The rules of being a decent human being do not go out the window. Just because your team is a couple of hours by plane doesn’t mean you can be a little careless with your words or be unreasonable with your schedules and expectations.

If anything, in a remote situation, more sensitivity and humanity are needed to hear the unsounded needs of your guys.

Especially when you sense that something’s not right, maybe take a quick one-on-one Zoom session to check on people. Show them there’s a whole support system that has their back.

And that, in 3 acts, is how NASA keeps a remote team intact. It starts from the hiring to the training and finally, to the managing.

In short, keep your team:



And well-prodded.

Kinetic Innovative Staffing specializes in exactly these kinds of tasks. We help businesses hire the best remote workers. By keeping a pool of pre-qualified and thoroughly vetted professionals, we ensure your team is “well-picked.” Kinetic takes you by the hand to make that hiring decision a breeze.

We supply companies with remote labour—from virtual assistants, customer service representatives, and software engineers, to accountants, bookkeepers, marketing assistants, etc.

And because we want you to effectively manage a distributed workforce, we’ll also provide you with a specially-designed suite of software products to keep tabs on your team around the globe. (Don’t worry, we give good training.)

Contact us now.

Kinetic Innovative Staffing has been providing hundreds of companies in the Asia Pacific, North America, the Middle East, and Europe with professionals working remotely from the Philippines since 2013. Get in touch to know more.

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