Team Performance In Isolation

Living as a hermit seems very attractive. I could live my life without fear of judgement, work at my own pace and do what I want when I want. It seems like a dream. Unfortunately, history and recent studies show that isolated living isn’t a dream. The research behind how isolation affects individuals and team performance is fascinating.
Experts say that the reason isolation is so difficult is that it removes challenges from life. Let that irony settle in. It’s challenging because there are no challenges. Lack of challenge is not good because our brains are either being challenged and growing or they are bored and shrinking.
Boredom is a big deal. Members of the HI-SEAS research station (an isolated habitat in Hawaii to mimic space flight) said that their biggest tip for future students was to bring books. It’s said that some artic explorers brought a library-worth of books on the expedition. It was a sacrifice to take these books that would have taken up a lot of space that could have been used for food or other equipment. NASA has figured out that boredom is a killer and purposely makes schedules for repairs, cleaning or part replacements so that the crew never gets bored.
Challenges are just one way that our brain is stimulated. Another way is through interaction with the world about us. But living in isolated environments removes the opportunity to interact with the world in as many ways. Someone in space may be able to interact with the air (breathing) but they are never stimulated by nice smells or challenged to identify what’s for supper. Crews on a sub can interact with each other, but would never meet anyone new.
People may be annoying and their problems may be bothersome, but those problems and interactions are opportunities for creative thinking. Each conversation is a dance of how to convey information in a way the other will receive it and figuring out what the other is saying. We’re challenged to recall or learn new information based on what they talk about and are challenged to figure out a solution to any problems they may have. No wonder talking with people can be exhausting!
People serve another purpose in society. Each person silently makes everyone else conform to societal norms. I have an athletic shirt that I use for running. When I started going to a gym, I wore this shirt. It’s fluorescent yellow. But when I noticed that everyone else was wearing neutral greys, I switched shirts.
Even the most “creative freethinker” fits society in a lot of ways. I heard about an entrepreneur whom people praise as being creative and groundbreaking. His great project is a night-club. His club may be unique, but do you know how many other clubs there are in the world?
In most ways, we are all pretty similar and follow similar codes of conduct. Living in an isolated community changes these dynamics. Crews on a sub are removed from the larger society but have their own code. Submariners say that the cardinal sin is slamming doors (shift work is rough) or taking showers longer than 5 minutes. Even if there is no formal action for such things, few people would do either knowing that others would not appreciate it. So, everyone keeps each other in check.
In more extreme places, like space, the HI-SEAS project or Biosphere 2, there are generally less than 10 people, sometimes only one or two. Members of the Biosphere 2 project reported that the group split into two factions very early on: those who wanted to stick to the outlined goals and then those who wanted to branch out and study different areas. People reported being completely ignored by their teammates or even spat at, things that would never happen in the larger society, over a simple difference of opinions. Fewer people mean less society to adhere to.
Members from the Biosphere 2 project also said that focusing on shared goals became very important. Remembering why they were living in a bubble and reminding themselves of what they shared with the others helped deal with the stress. It can also be motivating to know that others are also working on the same project. As in all teams, the leadership sets the example. It is vital that the leadership is unified and synchronized in the goals and approach.
Leadership is also in charge of responsiveness. During the HI-SEAS project, communication was delayed by 40 minutes to replicate space. That meant no facetime and no instant messaging. The members of the project said they were more frustrated with the people outside than they ever got with people they had to share a tiny habitat with. It seems that the lag in response times made it seem that the outsiders were out of touch and didn’t care.
Living in space, on a submarine or in dorms might be a challenge, but don’t let that be the only challenge you face. If boredom and lack of challenge is the biggest factor of isolation, then challenge them to a duel. Challenge your brain by studying something new, learning a new skill, solving problems or puzzles or something else. Bring books instead of moves; they last longer, and the book is always better. If you can, get out and explore, interact with the world using as many senses to experience as many different sensations as possible. Break out and get to know as many people as deeply as possible. When you’re frustrated, try to focus on why you chose this opportunity and what you share with those around you. Communicate with people as much as possible, especially leadership. Wherever you live you might be frustrated, lonely or bored, but staying that way is on you.


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