Managing Remote Teams

NASA's experience in overcoming astronauts' sense of isolation holds lessons for managing teams working remotely.

NASA set the standard for remote management of a crisis fifty years ago when mission control coached the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft back to Earth after an explosion aborted the mission and jeopardized the lives of three astronauts.  The effort to rescue the crew, depicted in the 1995 movie Apollo 13, provides excellent examples of how to manage your team remotely to a successful result.

Set clear goals and expectations

In Apollo 13, the goal was to return the crew to Earth alive, and with the entire world watching, “Failure was not an option.”  The team on the ground maintained calm, assessed the problem analytically, considered all solutions given the unique circumstances, and communicated with openness to the team in the field, i.e., orbiting the Moon.  Everyone involved knew the challenge and consequences.  Your team will appreciate similar clarity and transparency in setting their goals and expectations.

Communicate with your team

In 1970, primitive radio and video communications connected the astronauts from the team working 200,000 miles away.  Nonetheless, ground control monitored the location of the team in the sky, shared detailed information about the flight challenges and possible solutions.  With today’s sophisticated teleconferencing tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, you should be able to stay on top of your crew’s work from home. Still, you’ll need to make extra efforts to engage them, push relevant information, solicit feedback, and monitor progress against your stated goals.

Know your resources and provide training

At one point, the crew of Apollo 13 needed to modify the lunar module, designed for two days of use by two crewmembers, to provide four days of use by three.  The team on the ground inventoried available items onboard the module, designed a makeshift CO2 filter from items available, and then communicated how to make it to the team orbiting the Moon.

In your case, it’s doubtful that you anticipated a pandemic and months of remote work by your team.  It’s reasonable to assume your staff has access to teleconferencing tools, but you can’t assume they’re proficient with software features or how to protect their home network against security threats.  Your IT staff needs to inventory the devices, software, internet access, and personal constraints of your team in the field and give them detailed guidance on proper use.

Create agendas and checklists

In Apollo 13, the astronauts referenced checklists to ensure they didn’t overlook a critical task while working under pressure.  Agendas and action plans should be part of your management tool kit to keep your staff focused and not miss any urgent action.  To be most effective, verbalize the list on calls and require others to acknowledge completed items.  You should also provide repeated reminders of meetings with links and required documents, to make it easy to connect.

Be efficient and disciplined

It was vital for the Apollo 13 astronauts’ survival to conserve limited power and oxygen.  In the COVID-19 world, teleconferences can get sidetracked or devolve into group chats; be diligent in keeping your team on track and understand even if your company is at full strength, efficiently use resources.  Also, failing to maintain discipline with your company’s data might not have fatal consequences but could lead to significant civil and even criminal liability.  Communicate the need for security discipline and insist that your team follow all security protocols.

Be flexible

Once the Apollo 13 mission aborted, the ground team leader scrapped the flight plan and headed to the blackboard to craft a strategy to bring the spacecraft home.  When engineers objected that Apollo lunar module was “not designed for that,” the team leader countered that he didn’t care what it was designed to do; he cared what it was capable of doing.  Likewise, there is a chance your staff and protocols are not designed for remote work, but to survive, you must adapt.

Measure and adjust accordingly

Onboard the damaged Apollo spacecraft, the crew continued to monitor data—fuel, temperatures, oxygen, and CO2 levels and relayed that to the crew on the ground for analysis against the plan.  Likewise, there’s no reason to stop monitoring your team’s proven metrics and make adjustments based on the data you’re receiving.  You might need to adjust your goals depending on the impact of COVID-19 on your industry, but you should still monitor data from the field against those goals.

Maintain poise and professionalism

Finally, throughout Apollo 13, the respective teams remain poised throughout the problematic situation.  Actions under stress define a team, and in the case of Apollo 13, professionalism decided the success of the mission.  Likewise, operating with the COVID-19 restrictions and limitations on your crew may prove frustrating—delays, limited access, masks, pets, and kids.  Keep your poise and patience, and your team will be better for it.

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