Exercise bikes, lighting attuned to circadian rhythms, and live satellite feeds from space… The former director of Mission Operations at the Nasa Space Center in Houston, Texas, Paul Sean Hill explains how the agency created an office that’s out of this world – and embraced the trend for flexible working
What does Nasa Mission Control look like?
It’s a little like an emergency call centre or an air-traffic-control facility. There are around 20 tables, all with several computer displays, plus a big screen at the front of the room, displaying summary data for the entire team. As you’ve probably seen in films, we have a bank of clocks at the top of the wall – displaying everything from the current time to the time of the next satellite coverage for the spacecraft. For almost everything we do, we’re either counting down to it or counting how much time it’s been since we’ve started it.
What most surprises visitors?
People always get giddy when they walk into the viewing room and see the large map in the centre screen showing precisely where the spacecraft is over Earth. Next to the map is a large screen that shows video coming from inside and outside the spacecraft. Visitors stare, and every time someone eventually says: “Is that real? Is that happening right now?” The answer is always: “Yes, that’s really happening right now, 250 miles up in the sky, halfway around the world from us.”
The layout of the centre is iconic. How much thought has gone into it?
Sixty years ago, when we first started flying in space, it was very important where people sat. Specific disciplines were grouped together because it was easier for them to compare notes. In today’s computer environment, that’s much less important. Now it’s enough for them just to be in the room together, or to have systems where they can virtually look each other in the eye and exchange data wherever they are.
The Space Station Flight Control Room in 1964
Do staff have the option to work remotely or flexibly?
Evolving technology allows for some degree of flexible working. We have systems that mean people outside the control room can log in and work from home. And, certainly for cases where they’re not flying the spacecraft – say doing data analysis or putting presentations together – there’s no reason they can’t do that from elsewhere. The centre also started letting people take every other Friday as a work-from-home day. We encouraged people on an individual basis: if your work was such that you could get your 80 hours per pay period in nine days instead of 10, then as long as you didn’t have some meeting you had to be in for, then by all means take that day off. That had a huge effect on the morale of the team. So flexible working, when used sensibly, is helping us.
How ergonomic are the workstations?
At the risk of offending many of my predecessors, in the first 40 to 50 years of our existence, a lot of the human factors were secondary and the focus was all on the technical side. It wasn’t unusual to have uncomfortable chairs, seating positions and keyboard positions. In the last 10 years, we’ve learnt to take that more seriously. Starting in about 2011, we completely changed everything.
How many of the changes came about as a result of staff feedback?
It came in little pieces. People didn’t complain about much, because it was just the way things have always been. When people used to complain about the seating or lighting, the management would roll their eyes and say: “Yeah, yeah. We went to the Moon with this lighting. Now shut up and do your job.”
Yet as the years went by, there were studies showing the importance of good ergonomics. Nasa’s own doctors told us there was a direct relationship between the type of lighting we have in our workspaces and our people’s mood. Overall, we discovered we could significantly enhance the ergonomics and make it a better workplace for our people without impacting cost. The new commercially available computer tables we bought were actually cheaper than the government-issued consoles that we were replacing.
Paul Sean Hill, former director of Mission Operations at the Nasa Space Center in Houston, Texas
Nasa staff often work 10-hour shifts in an office with no windows. How do you keep your employees healthy?
We operate from a big, windowless building because it’s easier to keep the computers cool – but it means there’s no natural light. With this in mind, we looked at the level, colour and style of our artificial lighting. It has the additional benefit of helping employees with their circadian rhythms and ability to sleep when they get home at times when the human wasn’t intended to sleep.
Our doctors also recommended that employees walk around during their shifts. Even as little as two to five minutes in every hour could have a significant effect on their long-term health. We also provided an exercise room in the Mission Control Room itself that had a couple of bikes and treadmills in order for staff to have a place to go if they wanted to be even more active in their break time.
Is there a dress code in the office?
Yes and no. I was old-school – when I was a flight director, I always wore a tie. The dress code has relaxed slightly over the last 20 years. Now that we have 24/7 coverage, it’s not unusual to see people, especially those working overnight, wearing business-casual clothes. But we generally don’t go below that. We’re definitely focused on the image that we project to the outside world. We want people to know that we are professional and focused.
What are your top tips for effective team working?
First, interaction is so important. At Nasa, we strongly encourage interaction between our staff at all levels, up and down the chain. It’s important that everyone feels able to talk to each other about their work – sharing knowledge and getting support from those around them, whether that’s face to face or remotely.
Secondly, and this is related to the first point, it’s crucial for everyone to strive for 100 per cent transparency. Withholding information is a warning sign that your team has trust issues. If a problem arose at Mission Control, at any part of the organisation, we expected it to be brought to the attention of the top management team immediately. That makes it sound like we micromanaged everything, but we found it made a significant difference. Being able to address issues as they happen – no matter how small – means we were able to manage the situation more effectively. As a result, we found ourselves spending half the time in management meetings, making significantly better decisions and leading the organisation better.
Thirdly, encourage everyone in your team to share their suggestions for how to improve things. Many people don’t complain about things that aren’t working, because they don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons. We learned that listening to our teams is the most valuable thing we can do – for the good of the organisation and for the health and happiness of our employees.
What can civilians learn from Mission Control?
The big one is: be careful that you’re not continuing to do what you’ve always done. For the longest time, the fact that we’d built the office in the way we had kept us using very expensive equipment that wasn’t as good as it could have been. It sounds crazy, considering what we do all day, but it took a long time for us to switch from our old PCs and software to the latest technology. Taking a leap and making the change was the best thing we could have done.