Forget Global: What Happens When the Workforce Goes Galactic?

If we’ve learned one thing in HR during the past decade, it’s that change is upon us. And there is no reason to expect things to move at a slower pace going forward. Even as we grapple with the reality of an increasingly global workforce, a number of recent news items are triggering an even more fantastical train of thought—what happens when the workforce goes galactic?

Mars Orbit Undocking by SpaceGuy5, Wikimedia Commons

Who cares, you say? That’s so far in the future it can’t possibly impact us.

According to retired US Marine, Captain Kaye, the international military machine has already been struggling with off-planet HR issues while deploying an elite defense force to protect colonies on Mars.

While we don’t believe Captain Kaye’s assertion that human colonies already exist on Mars, the reality may not be as far in the future as you might think. Case in point: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is talking about taking people to Mars in 10-12 years and considers establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars key to human survival.

Musk is not alone in this belief. The international team who established Mars One claim:

“Mars One will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Crews of four will depart every two years, starting in 2024. Our first unmanned mission will be launched in 2018”

What if these visionaries actually achieve what they’ve set out to do? We already have a handful of people working off-planet on orbiting space stations. What if our workforce will soon span interplanetary space just as it now spans the oceans between continents? And if (when) it does, what new HR challenges will we face?

Here are just a few possibilities that come to mind.

Interplanetary Income Tax

The USA is unusual in its policy of taxing worldwide income. As an American citizen, wherever you live and work, you file income tax returns and pay income tax to the United States—sometimes on top of any taxes collected in your country (or planet) of residence. The resources required to monitor and enforce these tax policies are substantial. As citizens of one of the most entrepreneurial nations on planet earth, Americans would likely be well represented in any off-planet exploration. If the tax on worldwide income were extended across the solar system, the complexity and cost of enforcing it would likely be astronomical! For that matter, figuring out the simple logistics of payroll, deductions, income tax, vacation pay and benefits for employees working off-planet might require a new Galactic HR specialization for all nations involved.

Burden of Proof

The USA is an at-will employer. Many other jurisdictions offer greater protections to employees; for example, the Mexican Labor Act (MLA) puts the burden of proof on the employer in the event of a dispute. Canadian law provides that an employer can only terminate an employee without cause if it provides the employee with “reasonable notice” of the termination or compensation in lieu of notice. Other countries provide varying degrees of protection against dismissal. With Mars so far away, monitoring actions and collecting information becomes arduous and the burden of proof may be insurmountable—not to mention the fact that a dismissed employee may have no other job opportunities or any way to get back to earth. As such, countries participating in a Mars Mission will have to overcome significant philosophical differences to arrive at consistent, workable off-planet policies.

Selection and Discrimination

The anticipated multi-national nature of a Mars Mission (and other inter-planetary ventures) presents other unique challenges. The recruiting process, for example, might fall under the non-discrimination legislation of various countries. When recruiting in the USA, we must avoid discriminating against veterans, people with disabilities, etc. In other parts of the world, employers are urged (or required) to hire in proportion to the ethnic diversity of the regional population. Since the destination is (to the best of our knowledge), a lifeless planet, how will the representative population be measured? Would the composition of the team be based on the population of the country with the launch pad, that of the organization running the mission, or the globe? Would the unique demands of such a mission necessitate the relaxation of certain anti-discrimination rules?

Extending Critical Technologies

There’s a lot of discussion about making sure remote workers have the right tools to do their jobs and are given plenty of opportunity for communication with the rest of the organization. But what happens when remote means 35.8 million miles away? What will it mean to provide employees with the right technology and ample opportunities to communicate when each spoken sentence has a 7-21 minute time lag and video conferencing is not an option?

Vacation and Leave

The Mars Mission will require a long-term commitment. Many countries mandate substantial paid vacation time and require employees to take their time off each year. Employers have to provide it and employees (technically) can’t avoid it. Since travelling to Mars takes (on average) 162 days, any viable Mars Mission will last a lot longer than one year. But no one will be vacationing in the Caymans while working on the red planet! The feasibility of mandated holidays and vacation will come into question when people are focused on surviving in a hostile physical environment. Life support can’t take a coffee break, let alone a long weekend! Once again, new approaches and new policies will be needed.

As far-fetched as it may seem, within the next two decades we might find ourselves managing a whole new level of remote workers and taking on a whole new universe of HR challenges. What’s your take? Will our expansion off-planet lead to multi-national collaboration in human capital management and the emergence of universal standards, or will we take the current global hodgepodge with us across the galaxy?

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