A home is not a space shuttle
In a brilliant bit of lateral thinking, two UK professors have analysed a series of strategies that help astronauts create work/life balance in the confines of their spacecraft – and proposed these as a model for remote workers everywhere post-Covid.
Setting up routines, and in particular the creation of zeitgebers (environmental cues such as temperature, light, alarm clocks, social interactions), to build new rhythms scores high. As does planning for both structure and flexibility – more of the former during the working week and the latter at weekends. Prioritisation of internal communications within an organisation – with Mission Control in the case of the astronauts – also emerges as crucial, particularly for new remote employees who can be frustrated and alienated by delays in receiving materials and information.
So far so interesting, but hang on: a spacecraft is a hermetically-sealed vessel designed to hurtle through the physical universe beyond the earth's atmosphere at 28,000Km/hr. Its primary task is to keep human beings safe while transporting them through the inhospitable nothingness of outer space. That we are even considering that the challenges of its crew members - typically 7 astronauts inhabiting a 33m2 crew station module for 2-18 days at a time - as useful to those of the newly expanded home-based workforce says something fundamentally concerning about the current state of our housing.
How can this be relevant? Of course, the answer is simple. For those with plenty of space and access to a garden, working from home through lockdown was great. A survey of 617 asset managers in May 2020, found them happier, healthier, less stressed, sleeping better, enjoying spending more time with the family, hiking with the dog rather than going to the gym and generally delighted at being released from the grind of the commute. Of course, these people had average salaries of £80,000 and no doubt homes to match. Some of the same questions posed in Chandigardh, India a month later, however, found a Zoom audience enjoying all the same things about working from home, but really struggling with not having enough space and or enough spatial and acoustic separation from their household.
Covid has shone a harsh spotlight on social and spatial inequality. In England almost half the homes built in since 2002 are purpose-built flats with an average useable floor area of 55m2 – designed tight-fit, around rigidly defined pre-determined purely domestic functions, without gardens or a direct connection to the outside. And, I would say shamefully and as a direct consequence, the newest homes have been the least comfortable in lockdown. For those inhabiting such tiny, inflexible homes, the analogy of the spacecraft is apt. Too small, too rigid, and impervious to the outside world. Astronauts’ WFH strategies can only ever provide a sticking plaster, however. Far more importantly, we need to start to build the flexible, adaptable homes that give people agency to live their complex, many layered, non-standard lives as they choose.
More on how next time.