I was recently tagged into a conversation on Twitter. The thread started with this summary of findings about open plan offices:
In response, @chrisbiscardi wondered:
I’m partway through my PhD on remote teams so I know that research exists. Unfortunately, much of it lives behind academic paywalls (and let’s be honest, the articles are long and often difficult to read). As someone who is currently researching remote teams and who has worked in multiple remote teams, I’m deeply invested in the topic and the community, so I thought I’d put together a short answer to @chrisbiscardi’s request.
The Very Short Story
If the question is: are remote teams good or bad? The answer is: yes.
Research can’t prove whether remote teams are good or bad, instead research asks: under what circumstances are remote teams good or bad?
The Short Story
The initial tweet listed 8 reasons why open plan offices suck. In the same spirit, here’s 8 (or so) good things research has shown about remote teams.
Remote teams promote more equal participation among team members, reduce awareness of diversity (e.g. less gender, race discrimination), improve collaboration, and meet performance expectations at least as well as co-located teams¹⁴ ¹⁵. Remote teams allow companies to hire a wider range of expertise, give employees more flexibility, autonomy, and empowerment⁵, and remote team members report high levels of satisfaction, team commitment and perceived effectiveness⁵ ¹⁰ ¹⁴ .
But nothing is ever 100% good, you just have to pick your compromises. Here’s 8 bad things research has also shown about remote teams:
It’s more difficult for remote workers to develop trust in their team mates¹³. Remote workers get frustrated with the technology they use to communicate¹⁴. It can be more difficult for remote teams to share knowledge effectively², which slows down collaboration. Because there isn’t much context information — e.g. did my teammate sound angry because I annoyed them or because they’re having a bad day?— when something undesirable happens, remote workers tend to attribute the cause to their team mates’ personality rather than the circumstances², which can make it harder for teams to work together. Remote workers can feel isolated, or left out of face-to-face discussions. Working across time zones slows down response times, making it more difficult to coordinate. And working globally and cross-culturally can complicate communication.
It’s worth noting that many of the differences between remote teams and face-to-face ones seem to get smaller over time, as employees adjust to technology and develop better ways of working remotely.
The Long(itudinal) Story
What Kind of Research Should We Consider?
The twitter thread specifically mentions longitudinal studies. Most research in remote teams is not longitudinal, it’s cross-sectional. That means rather than looking at the outcomes for a given team over time, the research takes a snapshot of different types of teams and compares them. While academics recognise the need for more longitudinal work, it can be difficult to get companies to commit to participating. I haven’t noticed any major difference between the findings from the two types of research, but it’s worth pointing out that longitudinal research restricts us to a much, much smaller body of work.
There’s also a very convincing argument that it matters who you study and how³ ¹⁴ ¹⁷. A lot of research on remote teams has been done in the lab using students in temporary teams. It turns out that how a team of students behave when they don’t know each other, don’t have any formal hierarchy, and only need to work together on a short task may not be the same as how people behave in actual jobs — who knew?!¹⁸ Researchers are generally moving away from contrived experiments and basing their research on real organisations, but the lab research is still out there. Unfortunately, when you remove longitudinal studies based on students, there isn’t a lot of research left. Some, but not much⁰.
Some Longitudinal Studies
Painter, Posey, Austrom, Tenkasi, and Barrett (2016) looked at how three remote R&D projects coordinated over 2–3 years. They found that it’s worth matching how you coordinate with the level of uncertainty you’re dealing with. When the work is relatively well-understood and unambiguous then technical and structural coordination mechanisms (e.g. ‘plans’ and ‘standards’) work best. But when you’re dealing with uncertainty, people and social mechanisms (talking to each other, informal networks, etc.) are best. That’s no doubt true in co-located teams too, but because coordinating is more difficult in remote teams, how you coordinate has more impact. This might be one of the reasons why face-to-face works when things are getting tricky — it facilitates social mechanisms for problem solving.
Cramton and Hinds² looked at how teams from different cultures adapt to work together over time. They found the biggest issues were cultural assumptions about how authority, communication styles, and problem solving should happen in the workplace. When teams tried to adapt to solve these problems, some adaptations didn’t work because they were designed with one culture’s implicit expectations but implemented in a culture with different expectations. In the author’s words: “In our data, for example, some Indian developers eventually began to respond to German and US efforts to encourage more initiative and personal responsibility, only to be squelched by some Indian bosses who felt that their traditional role in the organization was being eroded” — Indian cultural expectations about authority were at odds with those of the US and German teams (pg. 17–18).
Other longitudinal studies have looked at trust development in remote teams, though these have largely been based on students rather than in organisations. They suggest that keeping communication positive and responding reliably helps teams develop trust in each other⁷.
Other Research That I Find Interesting
It’s not just the meaning of what we say that matters. In one case study Cramton (2001) found that, “over the course of the project, it became clear that silence had meant all of the following at one time or another: I agree. I strongly disagree. I am indifferent. I am out of town. I am having technical problems. I don’t know how to address this sensitive issue. I am busy with other things. I did not notice your question. I did not realize that you wanted a response” (p. 359). She notes that “there may be a tendency to fall silent rather than address sensitive issues because of the difficulty of communicating nuances ... In particular, uncertainty about silence can make it difficult to know when a decision has been made in a geographically dispersed group” (p. 359). All of which can cause misunderstandings and complicate effective communication. Developing clear expectations about how the team will communicate can help
Match the Tech to the Task
You need to match how you communicate to the kind of information you’re dealing with³. Information can range from clear, agreed and established canonical information to ambiguous information that’s open to interpretation. It can also be either explicit (i.e. it’s easy to write down) or implicit (difficult to write down, something you “just know”). For information that’s canonical and explicit, writing it down is very efficient (and can help reduce cross-cultural or language barriers). For information that’s implicit and ambiguous, the more you can work closely and interactively, the better. Pick the right technology for the information you’re dealing with: don’t try to solve a new, complex problem via email — jump on a video call or work together in person.
Malhotra, Majchrzak, Carman, and Lott (2001) offer some potential warning signs that a team may not have the right technology for the task: look out for people not being able to get started on tasks, expressing dissatisfaction with processes, and information not making it into shared team documentation (or making it into the docs but no-one ever looks at it again). I’d also add look out for people sharing knowledge less than you’d expect, people being left out when relevant information is shared, and frustration being expressed about team members’ communication behaviours (they may be attributing the behaviour to the person when it’s actually the technology that’s the bottle neck).
Some academics argue the right way to deal with remote work is to make everyone’s tasks as decoupled from each other as possible; minimise the interdependency to minimise the difficulty in coordinating⁸ ¹¹. The idea has a natural appeal. After all, tightly coupled work requires more communication to coordinate, to develop and flush out ideas, to solve problems, etc. If you make the work more modular and reduce people’s interdependency, they won’t have to communicate and coordinate all the time.
The downside is that if you don’t need to communicate with the rest of your team, you probably won’t. And then you don’t get all the benefits of collaboration — sharing knowledge, bouncing ideas of each other, building a sense of team. That’s especially important if you’re trying to do anything innovative. Sometimes task interdependency can be a good thing as it can drive more communication¹⁶.
One nice thing about working in the same space is that it gives you a lot of things in common — the same furniture, the same weather, shared frustration when the coffee machine breaks down, etc. That’s harder for remote teams to achieve¹. It’s worth deliberately helping remote teams develop things in common — shared experiences, common professional knowledge, etc. The more things you have in common, the more you know about each other. The more you know about each other, the easier it is to communicate effectively. Having some common ground with your team mates also makes them easier to understand and to predict, so it reduces uncertainty and may help to develop trust.
One Last Thing
I’m currently conducting research on remote teams for my PhD thesis and I’m looking for teams to participate. If you might be interested, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope this article helped and was interesting. Let me know if you have any questions or comments.
0. The research in the “Short Story 8 good/8 bad” section comes from mixed sources — both organisational and student based research. The rest of the research referenced here was done in organisations, except where mentioned otherwise.
1. Cramton, C. D. (2001). The mutual knowledge problem and its consequences for dispersed collaboration. Organization Science, 12(3), 346–371.
2. Cramton, C. D. (2016). Insights for Culture and Psychology from the Study of Distributed Work Teams. In Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology, Volume 6. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Gerybadze, A. (2004). Knowledge management, cognitive coherence, and equivocality in distributed innovation processes in MNCs. MIR: Management International Review, 103–128.
4. Gibbs, J. L., Sivunen, A., & Boyraz, M. (2017). Investigating the impacts of team type and design on virtual team processes. Human Resource Management Review, 27(4), 590–603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2016.12.006
5. Gilson, L. L., Maynard, M. T., Jones Young, N. C., Vartiainen, M., & Hakonen, M. (2015). Virtual Teams Research: 10 Years, 10 Themes, and 10 Opportunities. Journal of Management, 41(5), 1313–1337.
6. Hertel, G., Geister, S., & Konradt, U. (2005). Managing virtual teams: A review of current empirical research. Human Resource Management Review, 15(1), 69–95. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2005.01.002
7. Jarvenpaa, S. L., Knoll, K., & Leidner, D. E. (1998). Is Anybody out There? Antecedents of Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Management Information Systems, 14(4), 29–64.
8. Kiesler, S., & Cummings, J. N. (2002). What do we know about proximity and distance in work groups? A legacy of research. Distributed work, 1, 57–80.
9. Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., Carman, R., & Lott, V. (2001). Radical innovation without collocation: A case study at Boeing-Rocketdyne. MIS Quarterly, 229–249.
10. Martins, L. L., Gilson, L. L., & Maynard, M. T. (2004). Virtual Teams: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go From Here? Journal of Management, 30(6), 805–835.
11. Olson, J. S., Hofer, E., Bos, N., Zimmerman, A., Olson, G. M., Cooney, D., & Faniel, I. (2008). A theory of remote scientific collaboration. Scientific collaboration on the Internet, 73–99.
12. Painter, G., Posey, P., Austrom, D., Tenkasi, R., & Barrett, B. (2016). Sociotechnical systems design: coordination of virtual teamwork in innovation. Team Performance Management, 22(7/8), 354–369.
13. Powell, A., Piccoli, G., & Ives, B. (2004). Virtual teams: a review of current literature and directions for future research. ACM SIGMIS Database, 35(1), 6–36. doi:10.1145/968464.968467
14. Purvanova, R. K. (2014). Face-to-face versus virtual teams: What have we really learned? The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 17(1), 2–29.
15. Scott, C. P. R., & Wildman, J. L. (2015). Culture, communication, and conflict: A review of the global virtual team literature. In Leading global teams (pp. 13–32): Springer.
16. Sosa, M. E., Eppinger, S. D., Pich, M., McKendrick, D. G., & Stout, S. K. (2002). Factors that influence technical communication in distributed product development: an empirical study in the telecommunications industry. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 49(1), 45–58.
17. Webster, J., & Staples, D. S. (2006). Comparing Virtual Teams to Traditional Teams: An Identification of New Research Opportunities. In Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management (Vol. 25, pp. 181–215): Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
18. Lab research is important and useful because it allows researchers to isolate and manipulate specific variables in a way that’s impossible in the workplace. Lab research has paved the way for research based in organisations so, while I’m being flippant here, that shouldn’t be taken to undermine the value of the experimental research.