WorkLife with Adam Grant
11,669 views • 44:10

Lizet Ocampo: I have a team meeting with my team. It's Monday morning, so we kind of miss each other. "Let's turn our cameras on."

Adam Grant: For Lizet Ocampo, it seemed like a regular day in quarantine. But when they turned on their cameras, something was off. Her face was a potato, a flat image of a potato, with Lizet's eyes and lips moving on it.

LO: And I just remember thinking, "Why am I a potato?" and of all things, why a potato? (Chuckles) Like, I couldn't go back to a regular camera, so I just essentially was a potato for the meeting.

AG: The previous week, Lizet had been in a virtual happy hour for Latino leaders.

LO: And I wanted to make them laugh, and so I thought, "You know what? Next week, I'm going to try to do some funny filters," and so I download these Snap filters, but it didn't really download all the way. There was an error message that kept popping up, so I kind of gave up on it and forgot about it.

AG: Turns out the filters had worked a little too well and a little too late. Now Lizet was stuck as a potato. Her colleagues laughed and went on with the meeting. Lizet didn't think much of it until she got a text.

LO: Someone that's on my staff took a picture of it and posted it on her personal Twitter account, so I had no idea.

AG: She wrote, "My boss turned herself into a potato and can't figure out how to turn the setting off."

LO: And then my colleagues' faces are hilarious because it looks like they're trying to be serious, but they're trying not to laugh at the same time.

AG: It is amazing because you see her, you see the guy, and then there's just a potato.

LO: (Laughs) Yes.

AG: (Laughs) Yeah, this poor potato is like, "How do I stop being a potato?"

LO: Forty million people have seen it, and it's become sort of a cultural moment in this quarantine world that we're in right now.

AG: You have a new identity now, don't you, though?

LO: That's true. I'm known to the world as "potato boss." I have potato appearances requests (Laughs) —

AG: (Laughs)

LO: and so I've showed up as a potato to some meetings for friends at other organizations and things like that.

AG: The coronavirus pandemic has thrown many of us into the deep end of working remotely. While some people have found creative ways to swim, many others are struggling just to stay afloat. The good news is that remote work is not uncharted waters. We've actually been doing it and studying it for a long time, and with those lessons in hand, you might actually be more prepared than you think to make remote work work.


(WorkLife theme music)

AG: I'm Adam Grant, and this is "WorkLife," my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: remote work, how we can communicate better with and without a camera, no potatoes required, and how, even during this unprecedented pandemic, we can stay resilient.

This episode is sponsored by Hilton.

(Musical interlude)

As the world has gone into lockdown, many of us have experienced the challenges of working from home. But some jobs are hard to do remotely. If you work in health care or public safety, you need to be on the front lines. If you're in manufacturing, production or distribution, you have to be on-site at a farm, factory or warehouse. We're all depending on the people who are risking their health and safety to go to work. Yet, in the knowledge and service industries, many jobs can be done with online tools. And that's not as new as it seems.

Half a century ago, futurists started predicting the rise of remote work. In 1993, management guru Peter Drucker wrote that commuting to an office is obsolete. But a quarter-century later, nearly half of global companies still weren't allowing remote work at all.

Not anymore. Around the world, many companies are now requiring remote work. This forced remote work has amplified many of the challenges we had when we worked face-to-face. And even in that hard-to-imagine future beyond the pandemic, at least some of this shift to remote work is probably here to stay. So, how do we do it well?

As teams, we need to figure out how to stay connected and collaborative. As individuals, we're all seeking guidance on how to stay sane when we're working alone.

Recorded caller 1: So, I'm incredibly vulnerable and scared of losing some of the relationships that have taken a long time to build and not having the edge of my personality and my ability to communicate clearly face-to-face.

Recorded caller 2: Working from home has been a nightmare.

AG: Interruptions have become a fact of life. We're all "BBC Dad" now, with kids or pets dancing right into our video conferences.

Recorded caller 3: We get on a Zoom call with our region, and in runs my four-year-old, completely naked, and I was speaking, so I wasn't on mute, and all you hear is me screaming, "No!"

Recorded caller 4: I finally made a rule that said, "If you interrupt a Zoom meeting, you'll have to stay for the whole thing." The first offender was my 10-year-old daughter. She ended up sitting there for 45 minutes with nothing to play with, and I can remember her telling all the other kids, "Wow, don't go down there, because you're going to have to stay for one of those boring meetings."

Recorded caller 5: On one Zoom call where I was pleading with government officials to please listen to the plight of small business owners, my five-year-old daughter walked behind me and said, "Mom, if you die of the virus, I'll run your company," and everyone went silent. Try to come back from that when you're campaigning.

Martine Haas: I think in some ways, we are adapting very, very fast right now. We are the experiment that will create the data. (Laughs)

AG: Martine Haas is my colleague at Wharton and a renowned expert on how teams collaborate at a distance. Now she isn't just studying it. She's living it.

MH: I've been working to kind of get my setup really functional, and I invested in a screen to separate my workspace from the rest of the room that I'm in. I open the screen ceremoniously in the morning, and then I close it ceremoniously. I literally move it so that it kind of covers the desk just as a way to kind of switch off.

AG: One of my favorite insights about teams is that they're kind of like amplifiers: whatever you put in comes out louder. When we go remote, that's even more true. All of our microphones are blasting at once, and that can cause problems.

MH: I sometimes think about it as kind of like an iceberg, right? At the top of the iceberg, the stuff that's more obvious — you know, it's just difficult to communicate, partly because of the technology, right?

AG: Think about how much time you've wasted on tech problems.

(Video call login sound) First man: Hey, Paul. Can you hear me?

(Login sound) Paul: Hey, guys. Hey, Tyler.

Tyler: Sorry I'm late. Having a hard time connecting.

FM: One second. Paul's having a sound issue.

P: I can't hear you. T: Try adjusting your output settings.

P: Can you hear me? T: It's the gear icon.

P: Never mind. I got it. I just had to change a few settings.

FM: Great. Great. I think we can get started then (Echoes) started then then.

(Exasperated) Oh, great. Oh, great.

AG: Another obvious issue is power.

MH: And it's very easy to fall into a very hierarchical form of communication.

AG: You know, where the person with the most authority or status hijacks the conversation. In a classic study of airline crews, it was possible to predict a flight's timeliness and fuel efficiency just by watching the first 15 minutes of a captain's meeting with the crew. The ineffective captains tended to monopolize the conversation. The effective ones did more two-way communication. They spent more time engaging their crews and listening to them. They also encouraged their crews to talk to one another about the task. Creating open channels of communication is even more important in virtual teams. You've probably had video calls that were dominated by one talking head, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.

MH: So the less obvious things, there are two big buckets of things called "shared identity" problems and "shared understanding" problems.

AG: Shared identity and shared understanding. Beneath the everyday communication challenges you've seen, these are probably the bigger issues at play. In fact, these are the key ingredients that Martine has found for making remote teams effective. But how do you build them among teammates who can only see the dimly lit, poorly framed video conference versions of each other? Let's start with shared identity. It's the sense that we're all in this together. When teams lose that sense of unity ...

MH: ... it's really easy to get an us-versus-them kind of dynamic going. "Here in Philadelphia, we work really hard, but that part of the team that's over there in Belgium, they really don't work so hard, they don't come in on time. We don't know what they're up to." So it's very easy to get those kind of psychological distancing dynamics that come into play, and it's a basic psychological process.

AG: In the study of airline crews, the effective captains created a shared identity. They talked about everyone as "we," not just the flight attendants, but also the maintenance crew, the gate agents and even the air traffic controllers communicating remotely with them. They saw themselves as leading one team that was responsible for the safety of the flight. The ineffective captains reinforced fault lines between subgroups. They called the pilots "we" but everyone else "you." This lack of shared identity hurts the work of face-to-face colleagues but creates an even bigger problem for remote teams.

MH: It reduces trust. It reduces psychological safety, that sense that it's safe to kind of speak up in the group. It can lead to people withholding information rather than sharing what they know, it can increase conflict. And so it's really important of the team leader to articulate for an overarching goal.

AG: Goal-setting isn't usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about team identity. What most people try instead is team-building activities. I'm guessing you've suffered through Zoom calls where you're asked to name your favorite pizza topping or to share highlights from your totally boring weekend in quarantine. Those superficial strategies overlook that we bond best when our individual actions contribute to a common purpose. Research reveals that it's critical to establish team goals and clarify roles, especially in big teams. Having team goals creates a sense of shared identity. Having clear roles prevents social loafing and free-riding, helping people feel that their individual responsibilities matter.

The other key challenge of virtual teams is shared understanding, being able to get on the same page, not just about what you're doing, but also about who you are and what you value.

MH: It's basically the problem that you kind of have incomplete information. You don't have a good understanding of each other's contexts, right? So this is actually why it's really valuable to ask members of your remote team, "What does your workplace look like? Who else is there? Do you have a dog? Are you watching your kid? What else is going on?"

AG: You know you've reached shared understanding when a colleague does something that would be puzzling to most people but you get it right away. The project manager who cc's the boss isn't trying to make everyone look bad. She's anxious about your team's work being overlooked. The guy in accounts payable isn't signing off at 3pm because he's a slacker. He's taking care of his mom, who's ill.

MH: Because if you don't understand people's contexts, you can make attributions — and they're often negative attributions — about what other people are doing or whether they're working hard enough or whether they're distracted that are not really fair, right? Because you don't really get what their situation is in the same way as you would if you were working face-to-face.

AG: Think about your virtual team. Shared identity and shared understanding are pivotal for trust. How do you make that happen when you're not in the same physical space? You might strengthen shared identity by circulating feedback from customers on why your team's work is more important than ever. And you could get to some shared understanding by talking about your favorite video conference bloopers. Some of you have been experimenting with other strategies.

Woman to baby: Hey, bud, can you say "welcome"?

Baby: Welcome.

Woman: To. Baby: To.

Woman: Principles. Baby: (Babbles)

Woman: Of. Baby: Of.

Woman: Management! Baby: (Babbles)

Man: My little sister, she had found a sign that said "Wall Street" on it. She put the Wall Street sign behind me so that when I get on my Zoom calls, my colleagues can see it, and she said, "Look, now you're on Wall Street. Stop complaining. Act like it."

Woman: Can you say "my"? Baby: My

Woman: Mama. Baby: Mama.

Woman: Misses. Baby: Misses.

Woman: All. Baby: All.

Woman: Of. Baby: Of.

Woman: You. Baby: You.

Man: I love asking folks to give me a quick tour of their makeshift home office if they're comfortable with it. I've found it often leads to a conversation about hobbies or life outside of work, which has been really, really cool for building closer relationships and kind of humanizing the other folks on the team.

Woman: OK, one more thing. If you're happy and you know it shout "hooray"!

Baby: Hooray!

Woman: All right!

AG: I've been doing the majority of my work remotely for the past 15 years. Some of the key members of our "WorkLife" team have never even met face-to-face, so reaching shared understanding has been key in our collaborations. If you work with me, we have a shared understanding that my biggest vice is being chronically late. I have a hard time disengaging from a task before it's done, and I try to squeeze too much into each day, but I often have calls with people who don't have that context. Eventually, I had to start managing expectations. Now my calendar invite automatically notifies people that I'm usually running five to 10 minutes late. It helps them understand my schedule. But there's something that helps even more.


Alex Cornell: (Sings) Well, I've been sittin' here all day / I've been sittin' in this waiting room.

AG: Hold music. But not just any hold music.

AC: (Sings) Waitin' on my friends / Yes, I'm waitin' on this conference call / All alone.

AG: Now when I jump on the line late, people aren't disappointed or frustrated. They're often amused.

AC: (Sings) Guess I'm on hold / I hope it's not all day.

AG: So when I scheduled a call with the guy who wrote this song, for once, I was deliberately late. I let him call in first, so he could hear his own hold music.

AC: Here's my voice. (Chuckles) Y'all sing along. (Laughs)

AG: Alex Cornell wrote this song for UberConference, because he hates hold music.

AC: Whenever I call into an airline or anything like that, and you hear the same song over and over and over again, you're now sort of already in this like, low-level tortured state of just been listening to this terrible song over and over again.

AG: So he decided to make something better.

AC: (Sings) Tell me where can they be ...

AC: (Speaks) If you could imagine being on hold, and while you're on hold, there's just actually a person there that's sort of like a doorman, so to speak. I'm just smiling as I'm saying it because it's such a weird thing to picture, this, like, virtual doorman saying like, "Oh, hey, like, here you are, too, calling into this conference call," but then also, it acts as a great icebreaker.

AG: Alex, didn't just write the hold music for UberConference. He cofounded the company, and then went on to be the lead product designer of Facebook Live. So he's spent a lot of time working on virtual communication and has a lot of experience building shared identity and shared understanding. Alex's new start-up, Cocoon, has developed an app for communicating privately with our closest friends and families. Before the pandemic, the team was six people in the same physical space while one person was remote. Now they're all remote.

AC: We have brought on at Cocoon two new team members since this began, and they need to be onboarded to the company, to the product and to what we do and what we believe in.

AG: He's instinctively put into place some of the core strategies that Martine Haas recommends. To strengthen shared identity, Alex has created written memos to share the company's history and values. Spelling it out forced him to get clear on the team's goals and culture and helped newcomers get up to speed from a distance. It's something they can all revisit occasionally to remember their common purpose and norms. And to foster shared understanding, Alex has found that it helps to open up a little more about his home life.

AC: I've found that it can be pretty helpful for this situation too, even just for our coworkers, to have a little bit more awareness of what we're all doing day to day. I wouldn't normally have shared with them that I am building a gigantic LEGO with my stepson, and that's something that they know, and I think we're actually, in some ways, more in touch with one another than we ever have been.

AG: There's evidence that when we gain this kind of personal knowledge about our colleagues' lives outside work, it humanizes them. We trust them more and feel more similar to them. If we only talk about work, we miss out on that information. So Alex has been experimenting with unstructured interaction to create shared understanding.

AC: We've definitely done virtual lunches. I think one of the things that is missing most instantly when you go full remote is the sort of just camaraderie associated with being able to just kind of have a conversation about nothing around the lunch table, and it's weird to set a meeting and say, "The agenda is we're not going to talk about work, and everybody please have fun." It's like that is, that's a weird agenda. It's hard to do. I think there's all kinds of these new norms that are being established just as we go.

AG: When you communicate virtually, what norms have you been setting to facilitate shared understanding? Maybe you've been encouraging people to use the chat function so the quieter voices get heard. Or you might be turning off your self-view so you're not distracted by all your weird facial expressions. But if you're like most people, you want to keep seeing your team members' videos. You prefer that to audio-only because you value having the rich visual cues of facial expressions and body language. That's how you read their emotions, right?

(Imitates fail buzzer) Wrong.

It turns out that if you want to know what someone is feeling, you might be better off just hearing their voice. In one experiment, people read another person's emotions more accurately when the lights were turned off. In another experiment, they were more accurate when the video feed was turned off. Follow-up studies showed that when we don't have visual cues, we pay more attention to the content and tone of voice.

AC: I think that there is definitely something that is pure about when all you can hear somebody's voice. Then when you switch to audio only, it's like that actually is something that we're all familiar with and are somewhat used to, and there's no sort of missing piece.

AG: Plus, if you're on video all day, you could be losing contributions from one group of colleagues in particular: introverts. Why? Because of screen-out.

AC: Even though I really want to see my friends, if I've been on Zoom all day, I don't really want to spend another couple hours on Zoom just because, socially, I'm tired of interacting, but I'm a bit of an introvert, I suppose, so my energy is just depleted, usually, by the end of the day so.

AG: Introverts are more sensitive to stimulation than extroverts, not just bright lights and loud noises, but also eye contact, and video calls seem to be magnifying that overload.

AC: And you're staring at somebody's eyes for, in some cases, like an hour, and I don't know about you, but when I talk to somebody else, I'm very rarely staring at their face for all 60 minutes.

AG: There's a fun study that tracked people's reactions to seeing a large virtual face on their screen. The most common response was to flinch.


AG: We know face-to-face interaction is critical for establishing trust, for building that shared understanding that Martine Haas has found is so important. But once trust exists, I think we should all have the license to turn off our video feeds from time to time. That's what I've been doing. When people ask what video conference platform I prefer, I often tell them "audio." After all, if you know what I look like, and you trust me, you don't need to see my face every minute. But for times when you don't have that option, Alex recently created a video conference version of his hold song.

AC: My version of this on video conferencing is to have a looping version of myself who's sitting there —

AG: (Laughs)

AC: ... seemingly paying attention. Technically — I'm not saying I would do this — but you could have the looping version of yourself just on the call the whole time. This video one, it actually is me, so it's sort of like a "Westworld"-type version of it.

AG: If we were robots, it would be easy to be resilient. Just turn your emotions off until this crisis is over. Since we can't do that, the next best thing is to learn from someone who's done more remote work than almost anyone in human history. After the break.


OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at Hilton. We had recorded a story back in February. Then the world changed, so we decided to do something different, to speak to the moment we're living in.


Charles Hill: I was in denial. We weren't going to be impacted. We're making it out of this. And it was that moment, it was 4:30 on a Friday, March 6. I knew that we were in for something else.

AG: Meet Charles Hill. He's the General Manager of DoubleTree by Hilton in Crystal City, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. That Friday, his hotel was hit with a wave of cancellations. As the reality of how severely the coronavirus would affect them set in, he was called into nonstop meetings to answer an impossible question: How do you manage a hotel in the middle of a pandemic?

CH: What is it that's happening around us? How big is this? And what do we need to do? There was nothing coming in. It was all going out. But we still had these hotel rooms.

AG: That's when Hilton came up with a plan. They would do what they do best: offer hospitality.

CH: Hospitality is caring for others and spreading light and warmth.

AG: In partnership with American Express and its hotel owners, Hilton donated a million rooms across the US to frontline healthcare professionals.

CH: For us to be able to provide accommodations for people who are literally working on the front lines to take care of those in need, it's such a great way to impact our community.

AG: They took in nurses, doctors, EMTs — the people working tireless hours who needed a safe and clean place to stay. When they arrived, Charles was there to welcome them at the front desk.

CH: I think there's a sense of surprise that they don't have to pay. There isn't a fee. We're not going to charge you. It's OK. We want you here. We're thankful for what you're doing.

AG: For Charles and his staff, it felt good to be able to do something, and they were inspired to bring more light and warmth — literally.

CH: The lights in our north tower have this warm glow, and we came up with the idea of putting messages in that north tower so that anybody who passes would be able to see something from us.

AG: With no one staying in the north tower of the hotel, the dark windows were like a blank canvas. They could turn on the lights inside certain rooms to beam shapes to the outside.

CH: The first message that we put up was this big heart. Think about these warm bulbs in 52 rooms that just emanates from the building to create this kind of glow outside.

AG: A few days later, they changed the lights to form another message. This time, they beamed out one word.

CH: We did "hope," we put H-O-P-E, so you can see very clearly "hope" glowing in the night.

AG: Because the hotel is so close to DC, anyone going in or out of the city could see the lights. That night, Charles got a message from a police officer who works at the Pentagon.

CH: He had just finished his shift. He was walking back. He saw it, and he just wanted to say, "Thanks." He said, "This was the first positive thing I've seen in a while."

AG: Their community started to take notice. Other hotels followed suit. The local news picked up the story, and people started calling the hotel, hoping for a sneak preview of what shape the lights would take next.

CH: It turned into this moment where we all had something to be happy about again and something to celebrate, and it was small, but it was a win, and it brought joy.

AG: Psychologists have discovered an alternative to post-traumatic stress. It's called "post-traumatic growth." It's the experience of not just bouncing back, but bouncing forward from adversity. Often, it takes the form of a greater sense of strength.

CH: This may be the toughest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes, but if we can make it through, anything else is a piece of cake. We're going to be stronger for making our way through this.

AG: COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for the travel industry. In times like these, hospitality is needed more than ever. Hilton hotels all around the world are coming together to be the bright light for those who need it most. Read more inspiring stories of Hilton hospitality at

(Musical interlude)

JaBarie Anderson: We're going to make magic today. OK, so —

(Woman speaks indistinctly)

JA: This is "WorkLife's" first live virtual haircut, and we're here with "You Probably Need a Haircut" on webcam, because this is the new normal. (To Coco) You're going to need a mirror, a comb and scissors.

Coco: I have scissors, they're the dog scissors.

AG: Since I don't have hair, our producer Coco volunteered to be a guinea pig.

JA: So cut straight across, a little bit higher.

Coco: A little bit higher? OK.

AG: Before the pandemic, JaBarie Anderson was a freelance stylist. So when he tried doing virtual haircuts from home about a month ago, he wasn't sure what to expect.

JA: I've literally been in so many bathrooms and showers with people now, and people turn on their camera, and it's just like people in their boxes getting their hair cut. I'm like, "Oh, OK. This is happening."

AG: Wait. That happens?

JA: Yes, people are shirtless, or the whole family is in there watching, talking like, "This is crazy. I want to see how this is going to turn out." I'm like, "Turn your head this way. Turn your head that way," and you're trying to get the hand positions right.

Coco: OK, cutting. (Scissors snip)

JA: OK. Now I'll ask you to go in and point-cut it.

Coco: Got it. OK, so now I'm point-cutting this. So basically ... Ohhhh.

JA: People being so willing and trusting — that was one thing that shocked me the most.

Coco: A little bit higher? OK. JA: Right there.

Coco: So, like, here? JA: Yep.

Coco: OK. Cutting. (Scissors snip)

JA: OK, now I want you to ...

AG: So far, there haven't been any major hair disasters, and by moving his job online, JaBarie's been able to get clients in San Francisco, Texas and Germany.

JA: This is absolutely amazing now. It gives me a platform to really showcase my talent.

AG: Wait. Did you just say this is amazing?

JA: Yes, it allows you to interact with your clients in a different way, and it builds trust, and it builds a bond amongst people in your household. So, say your wife is cutting your hair. That's another level of trust because it's your hair, you know?

AG: Wow, I would not have expected that. So it's gotta be harder, though, to do your job in some ways, because you can't touch the person or even control the scissors or the clippers.

JA: Well, that's where the education comes in. It's truly amazing to see what people can do from a video chat call and their home tools. That line is kind of shattered.

Coco: OK, I think I am shattering that line. It's still, like, a little —

JA: Shattering like broken glass!

AG: JaBarie's enthusiasm for this new platform has helped him maintain his livelihood during the pandemic. This kind of ingenuity is visible in many service jobs. Some physical therapists are doing virtual appointments. So are plumbers.

Plumber: You know, as far as your toilet, what have you been flushing down there? Did you use a plunger for this, because you really don't want to. Oh, I told him what tools he needed, and I stayed on the video with him while he fixed it himself. It ended up being a very simple fix.

AG: And people doing more independent work have found creative ways to stay engaged while working from home.

Woman: I fake my commute, which means I get on my stationary bike and listen to a podcast in the same way I do when I drive to work for roughly 30 minutes before going to actually sit at my desk.

Man: To stay productive, I could only use my phone in the living room, so pretty much my cell phone never leaves that area, and if I have to pick up a call, I'll have to go to the living room. If I want to check Facebook, I have to go to the living room in order to do so.

Scott Kelly: I have a little bit of a mission control setup, so I got an iPad, a second iPad. I have a little TV next, over my right shoulder, so I can monitor the situation.

AG: You might have your own personal mission control center as you navigate working remotely. But "mission control" has an entirely different meaning to Scott Kelly, because he's an astronaut.

SK: So, five years ago today, I launched into space for my mission that wound up being 340 days on the ISS.

AG: Three-hundred and forty consecutive days in space. It's an American record for a single mission. The rest of us weren't schooled in how to stay at home that long in sustained isolation, so I turned to Scott for ideas on building resilience. Other than the few fellow space travelers in isolation with him, communication with his family, friends and coworkers was entirely through video, e-mail and radio calls. He couldn't go outside without the right equipment, and he didn't even know when his mission was going to end. Sound familiar?

SK: I knew I was going to come home about a year later. I didn't know exactly when. I had to make this mental kind of change to my whole reference system with regards to my life.

AG: He'd been to space three times before, but he'd never been out there for so long away from everyone he loved.

SK: And I felt like I needed to pace myself, as you can wind up working too much when you go to sleep in your office, and you wake up, and you're still in your office. The walls could be closing in a little bit, and I definitely felt that on my six-month flight.

AG: Under normal circumstances, conventional wisdom is to be in the present, live in the moment, seize the day. But in isolation, sometimes the day sucks, especially in outer space.


SK: I also missed nature, going outside, sun, rain, wind, fresh air. People become depressed without that sun.

AG: I'm imagining it's something like wake up in the morning and then wait for the Earth to rise?

SK: Yeah, so (Laughs) — Yeah, "earthrise." Never heard it that way, put it that way, but yeah, that's a good way to put it.

AG: For Scott, every day started feeling like "Groundhog Day."

SK: I would generally wake up at around 6:15, have breakfast, work for a few hours, take time for lunch, schedule time for exercise, schedule time to connect with people.

AG: It sounds a lot like what many of us are experiencing now. Time becomes meaningless. You've probably already heard the most popular tips for coping with that: "Make a daily schedule." "Wear different clothes for different parts of the day." "Have Zoom calls with family and friends." But one of the lesser-known ways to give this time meaning is to master the art of time travel. More specifically, mental time travel. In psychology, it's a skill. Rewinding to think about the past and fast-forwarding to imagine the future. It's a distinctively human skill, and if we use it thoughtfully, it gives us the capacity to find meaning in the mundane and happiness in the midst of sadness, and make time pass faster or slower at will. The first destination for your mental time machine is the future. That's where Scott started. Months before he set foot in the rocket to leave Earth, Scott started imagining how he wanted his trip to end. He didn't just focus on what he wanted to accomplish. He imagined how he wanted to feel when his mission was wrapping up.

SK: My goal was to get to the end of this with the same enthusiasm and ability and energy as I had in the beginning, and I always wanted to convince myself that this is just my life. I'm here for a purpose, and my purpose was to be an astronaut and complete our mission objectives.

AG: It helped Scott stay focused, and made the days pass faster. Psychologists find that a mental trip to the future can help us think less about the monotonous how of our days and more on the meaningful why. We're able to get out of the dull weeds of the process and shift our attention to an exciting purpose. The farther ahead we look, the easier it becomes to tell a coherent story about our experience. One of the challenges of the current pandemic is that we don't know when our mission will end, but we do know it isn't endless. It will end. So think about how you want to feel on the day this crisis is over. How will you want to have gone through it? You might still find yourself worrying about what will happen in between. It's inevitable. But here's the thing: worrying isn't necessarily a bad thing.

SK: One of the things that NASA does very well is, and how we operate in space is, we're always having to think about, "OK, what is the next worst thing that can happen to us right now? And how do we react and respond to that?" You know, in some ways that can cause stress and anxiety.

AG: There's a distinction that we often make in psychology between worrying and rumination, where worrying is basically an attempt at problem-solving and trying to figure out, "OK, what could go wrong? What's that next worst thing? How do I avoid it?" And rumination is when you get stuck in a loop, just worrying about the situation, but not trying to act in the face of it. Did you have strategies for making sure that the stuff you were worried about didn't cause you to ruminate?

SK: Oh yeah, I think so, and I think that's part of our nature as astronauts is to understand that bad things can happen. We don't have control over them, but we still have to be prepared for them.

AG: Some psychologists recommend a simple strategy for preventing rumination: adding worry time to your daily schedule.

SK: Schedule time for your rumination, 15 minutes, maybe. Doing that will make the days go by so much quicker rather than just sitting there thinking about what you're going to do next and bingeing on Netflix all day.

AG: When I went through this exercise, I started thinking about silver linings, aspects of being fully remote that I'll miss, like having more family time and flex time, not having to travel or commute, not having to change out of pajamas or at least pajama bottoms. Psychologists find that imagining these silver linings fading in the future makes them feel scarce. That helps us appreciate them more in the present. Next, you can direct your mental DeLorean to the past. This is something Scott has been doing during the current crisis: thinking about memories from his days in space.

SK: When people ask me, "Well, what do you miss about space?" It's not launching in the rocket. It's not doing a space walk. It's not floating around. It's not the view. It is the people I was there with and also the sense of purpose.

AG: What I heard there was nostalgia. The Greek roots of nostalgia translate to "return" and "pain." The literal definition is: the pain of being unable to return to the past. But here's the strange thing: that's not how it feels. After people are randomly assigned to reflect on a nostalgic event in their lives, they end up feeling happier. They have a stronger sense of connection to others and become more willing to give and seek help. They gain a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Think about a nostalgic event in your life, something you had before the pandemic but no longer do, like celebrating a holiday with your extended family, going on vacation, even going to a restaurant. Reminiscing about those moments might seem bittersweet, but the aftertaste is mostly sweet. It motivates you to make the most of the present. But it doesn't just help to remember pleasant memories from the past. There are also benefits to reflecting on painful ones, too.

SK: It was the worst day of my 520 days in space by far and probably one of the worst days of my life was January 8, 2011. I was on the space station about halfway through my six-month mission, and I get a call from the control center in Houston, and then they say, "Scott, I don't know how to tell you this, so I'm just going to tell you. Your sister-in-law Gabby was shot in Tucson, Arizona." And I quickly got on the phone with my brother. He was packing his bags to head to Tucson. You know, I'm on the space station now, and I can't be there physically to be supportive to my family. Couple hours later, the CAPCOM called up on the privatized channel, and they told me Gabby had passed away because that's what the news was reporting. Later, I found out she was still alive, thankfully.


AG: That experience taught Scott a powerful lesson.

SK: Oh absolutely. I mean, I always realize things could be worse.

AG: This brings us to a third destination to transport yourself to alternative time lines, things that could have happened but didn't. It's called "counterfactual thinking." Psychologists have shown that imagining how things could be worse helps us find gratitude. There's evidence, for example, that people who graduate from college during a recession end up being happier with their jobs a decade later. They can easily imagine a world in which they're unemployed, so they don't take it for granted that they have jobs. Counterfactual thinking has come in handy for Scott over the past month. As bad as the coronavirus situation is, he's been reflecting on how things could be worse.

SK: You know, if given the choice of spending a year in my apartment or a year in space, the apartment wins hands-down every time.

AG: Even if you've never been to space, you know the current circumstances could be a lot worse. My wife and I have been talking with our kids about how lucky we are that grocery stores are still open and utilities are still on. We feel deep appreciation for the people who are hard at work keeping those services going. I've been thinking about how much harder it would be to do my job without the internet or a phone. Recording this podcast would be pretty much impossible. As it does with many astronauts, being in space broadened Scott's idea of who his neighbors were.

SK: When we're in space, and you look down at planet Earth, the planet is incredibly beautiful. During the daytime, you don't see political borders, and it makes it look like humanity is all part of one big team, and when you're part of a team, you need to work together to solve our problems. And I think this virus has shown us that we're really, for better or worse, more interconnected than I really realized. If you consider the last pandemic, which was like 100 years ago, and if you consider what we have been able to accomplish as a species in a hundred years, it's mind-blowing. I am absolutely confident that we will get through this, but it's going to take all of us working together, making the right decisions, doing the right things. Teamwork is absolutely critical when you're trying to do something like this. We're really fighting, right now, the greatest battle for our lives that we've ever had to fight.

(Musical interlude)

(WorkLife theme music)

"WorkLife" is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O'Donnell, Jessica Glazer, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios.

Special thanks to our sponsors, Accenture, BetterUp, Hilton and SAP.

For the conference call in real life, thanks to Tripp Crosby. For the snippets of what it's like to work from home, thanks to Jason Gates, Ryan Smith, Amanda Monday, Danielle Tussing, Erin Kahana, Tiffany Chang, John Mi, Aaron Guo, Next Plumbing and everyone else who called in to share their stories with us. For their research, thanks to Bob Ginnett on airline crews, Cameron Klein and colleagues on team building, Ashley Hardin on personal knowledge, Jeremy Bailenson on giant virtual heads, Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman on mental time travel, Kate Sweeny and Michael Dooley on worrying versus rumination, Constantine Sedikides and colleagues on nostalgia, Laura Kray and colleagues on counterfactual thinking, Emily Bianchi on starting your career in a recession, and my late advisor, Richard Hackman, on teams as amplifiers.

For all their help this season, we thank Nicole Bode, Valentina Bojanini, Sammy Case, Micah Eames, Will Hennessy, Dian Lofton, Jen Michalski, Sarah Jane Souther and Emma Taubner.

That's a wrap for season three of "WorkLife." Thank you so much for joining us. If you like what you heard, please rate and review the show. It helps people find us.

(WorkLife theme music)

And are you still a potato?

LO: I'm sorry — am I still a potato?

AG: Yeah, I mean, you're potato boss now. You have to be a potato, right?

LO: (Chuckles) The funny thing is, the first time I got the request to be a potato, I couldn't figure out how to be a potato. (Laughs) It took me — it was like the opposite problem. It took me hours to get the potato back up and running again.