HR Strange But True!
July 22, 2009

Hey, let's pretend we're going to Mars! No, it's not a game; it's a project to test workplace communication skills, performance, and stress in an “operational environment”--being in isolation with co-workers in a small, enclosed space. Did they say “stress”?

A press release from National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) describes the recent completion of a simulated flight to Mars where six volunteers were isolated in an “operational environment” for 105 days as part of a test to observe the ramifications of an actual space flight to the Red Planet.

The workplace was actually a series of small, interconnected modules that included research areas, living quarters, a kitchen, and an exercise facility that realistically mimics spaceship space for a 520-day mission to Mars. The “mission” was held in Houston and partnered with the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems.

The goal was to collect data on how people in an extremely demanding work environment performed and interacted and to develop “interventions” that could help future space travelers improve their performance and decrease stress and fatigue.

The volunteers were monitored by an optical computer recognition system that “read their faces” during cognitive and physical team activities to see if they were exhibiting increased fatigue, stress, or negativity after being cooped-up with colleagues. The release did not say if any workplace squabbles were recorded.

Participants also completed laptop-based “psychomotor vigilance tests” to detect changes in attention, response speed, and impulsivity during both daytime and nighttime work shifts. Watch-like monitors also tracked their wake and sleep cycles to compare to performance measures.

The tests were done during “high and low autonomy conditions” to see if results changed when “crewmembers” determined the tasks or they were dictated by “Mission Control.” Emergency situations and communications failures were thrown in the mix as well.

Volunteers also completed written questionnaires that recorded nonobjective observations of their own mood and performance and assessments of their interactions with others--that probably got interesting!

Analysis of the data will be released and should help many work environments, such as hospitals; transportation; fire and police; and the military, enhance their mode of operations.

We would like to see this experiment be repeated using the employees of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company--that would be out of this world.

Source: National Space Biomedical Research Institute

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