This study examined how interdependent teams (such as those with members in the field and at home base) interact and perform tasks with and without delays in communications between the team elements. It had three specific aims: 1) determine the feasibility and acceptability of conducting a study of communication delays on the ISS; 2) determine if there is an association between delays in communication, individual and team performance, and well-being; and 3) determine whether these associations are influenced by task complexity (i.e., criticality and novelty), task-related communication demands, communication quality, and task autonomy.
The study participants included three astronauts on the ISS (two American crewmembers and one European crewmember) and 18 participating mission support personnel who were asked to perform 10 tasks (6 without a delay in communication and 4 with a 50-second one-way delay) during a mission lasting more than 160 days. The tasks performed by the teams varied along two dimensions: 1) those that are either critical or not critical (“criticality”) and 2) those that are either novel or familiar (“novelty”). Tasks included variations in both dimensions as it was assumed that highly novel and highly critical tasks are similar to those that a team may encounter during a long duration mission in which they have no prior training but must address. After each task, participating ISS crewmembers and mission support personnel were asked to complete post-task questionnaires that included questions about individual and team behavior, performance, and mood. This study provided a preliminary understanding of the impact of communication delays on individual and team performance and well-being, as well as insight into how teams perform and interact under autonomous conditions in the analog environment most comparable to deep space.
Post-task assessments were completed by participating astronauts 100% (22/22) of the time, and by participating mission control personnel 83.3% of the time (15/18). Qualitative analysis of post-mission interviews found the study to be important and acceptable to the three astronauts. However, they also reported the study was limited in the number and type of tasks included, limitations in survey questions, and preference for open-ended to scaled items.
Crew well-being and communication quality were significantly reduced in communication delay tasks compared to control. Communication delays were also significantly associated with increased stress/frustration. Qualitative data suggest communication delays impacted operational outcomes (i.e., task efficiency), teamwork processes (i.e., team/task coordination), and mood (i.e., stress/frustration), particularly when tasks involved high task-related communication demands, either because of poor communication strategies or low crew autonomy. Training, teamwork, and technology-focused countermeasures were identified to mitigate or prevent adverse impacts.
Results from this study suggest task novelty may moderate the relationships between communication delays and individual and crew performance, and communication quality. However, contrary to our expectations, the inverse relationships between communication delays and crew performance and communication quality were stronger in low compared to high novel tasks. Furthermore, there was a trend for individual performance to improve in communication delay compared to control conditions in high novel tasks. In low novel tasks, participants may have assumed a shared situational model was established, and thus, in the absence of any formal communication delay training, may have inappropriately used minimal or ambiguous responses while performing the task. For example, one crewmember described his experience performing a standard weekly cleaning activity (low novel) with a communication delay, “So you call down and you ask them (mission support team) to disable smoke detection, and then you kind of forget that you even called…And then a minute later a call comes up and just says, OK, smoke detection has been disabled. And the crew is like, well I don’t know, is it Node 1, is it Node 3, what did we even call for?” On the other hand, team members may have been more engaged in and complete with their communications while performing highly novel tasks, and this proactive approach may have mitigated potential adverse impacts. Furthermore, qualitative feedback from the ISS crewmembers indicated detailed task procedures were provided for some of the high novel tasks. For example, one crewmember stated, “For each complicated step, we had short videos embedded in the procedures to help us. I think those were critical to our overall execution of the task.” Accordingly, detailed task procedures may mitigate or prevent adverse impacts of communication delays on individual and team outcomes during deep space explorations.
In contrast, task criticality did not moderate the relationship between communication delays and performance, crew morale, communication quality, or task autonomy in the current study. There was however, a trend towards a main effect of task criticality on task autonomy, suggesting ISS crewmembers felt they had more autonomy when they performed low compared to high critical tasks. Apart from the small sample size, the lack of a statistically significant interaction between communication delays and task criticality may be attributed to a number of factors, including the short communication delay interval, the type and number of tasks studied, and/or the format and number of survey items administered.
Since qualitative data suggested high task-related communication demands contributed to adverse impacts of communication delays, exploratory analyses were conducted to explore whether these relationships were also observed in the quantitative data. Results from this study suggest task-related communication demands may moderate the relationships between communication delays and individual and team outcomes. Specifically, the inverse association between communication delays and crew and team performance, and communication quality was stronger when tasks required high compared to low task-related communication demands.
Furthermore, task autonomy decreased in communication delay compared to control conditions when tasks involved a high, but not low level of task-related communication demands. Collectively, the qualitative and quantitative data suggest communication delays were more likely to negatively impact individual and team outcomes when tasks involve high levels of task-related communication; accordingly, countermeasures that reduce back-and-forth communications, either by increasing crew autonomy or improving communication strategies, may mitigate or prevent adverse impacts.
Abstracts for Journals and Proceedings
Palinkas LA, Vessey WB, Chou CP, Leviton LB. "Communication delay and its impacts on performance, well-being and autonomy on the ISS." Presented at the 2015 NASA Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop, Galveston, TX, January 13-15, 2015.
2015 NASA Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop, Galveston, TX, January 13-15, 2015. , Jan-2015