Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bridging the Gap: How to Improve Communication Between the Office and Remote Workers

Some teams are made up of some members who work on-site and some who work remotely. While most research shows that little difference in performance between the two groups, this kind of team poses a challenge. A study by researcher Nathan Bos and his colleagues from the University of Michigan shows that these mixed groups have a tendency to create a divide between the on-site workers (collocated) and the remote workers (isolates). From the study:

“We found that the collocated people formed an in-group, excluding the isolates. But, surprisingly, the isolates also formed an in-group, mainly because the collocated people ignored them and they responded to each other.”

Note that the on-site workers’ tendency to ignore the remote workers wasn’t intentional. It was just an effect of their physical proximity to each other and the greater inconvenience of contacting the remote workers. As a result, the remote workers were more responsive to each other, even though they couldn’t tell which participants worked on-site or remotely.

An earlier study, looking at Lucent Technologies’ software development department, supports these findings. At the time of the study, Lucent had teams working in the UK, Germany and India. The researchers found that employees interacted with local team members significantly more often than they did with remote team members.

Given the tendency of on site workers to ignore remote workers , how does one encourage unity in a mixed group? One way is to make communication between on-site and remote workers as easy as possible. This will minimize any difficulty for on-site workers to reach remote workers, and vice versa. You can do this by selecting communication channels that are easily accessible to everyone on the team. Whether it’s email, instant messaging, or a collaborative app, make sure that members can send and receive messages without compromising clarity. This is especially true with channels that are dependent on speed and signal quality, such as audio or video chat.

But it’s not just the quality of the tools and the speed of the Internet connection that matters. The speed of the replies and collaborative support among team members is also important. According to the Lucent Technologies study, multi-site groups have a tendency toward “a significant slowdown of work that spans sites, as compared to work involving the same people that does not cross sites.” Your team needs to understand that important remote requests require prompt responses to avoid this slowdown.

There are no shortage of tools to facilitate this kind of efficient communication. There are now hundreds of available communication and collaboration tools for teams to choose from, both in the form of hardware and software. Despite the broad choice of tools, however, it’s still best to stick to using as few of them as possible. This ensures that all the data, discussions, and content will be centralized and accessible in one place. So even if your people are not found in the same site, all the necessary information is.

When it comes to real-time communication, it may also help to establish cues that show whether a person welcomes incoming communication or not. Bos’ paper suggests that the lack of these cues may hinder successful communication, “Without contextual information it is difficult to know when someone is available or interruptible. Furthermore, people worry about appearing rude, so [they] do not initiate contact.” One way to use these cues would be type of presence status notification (the “Available”, “Busy”, and “Away” symbols) featured in most instant messaging apps. Make these cues consistent and enforced throughout the entire team.

But if you want to take a more radical step, why not encourage your entire team to work remotely — even if many of them live in the same city? A few years ago, Om interviewed Jason Fried of 37signals, who said that a distributed workforce was good for his company. Fried said that he believed people are more productive when they’re working apart. Even though (at the time) five members of the team lived in Chicago, they still worked apart. Since that interview, entire teams working remotely has become even more commonplace

What’s Crowdsourcing Useful For?

Defining “crowdsourcing” — like defining “social media” — can be a bit of a challenge. The term not only seems to have multiple meanings depending on who’s using it, but it’s also being used to define a whole new landscape of activities that didn’t exist in their current form a mere five years ago.

In its simplest form, crowdsourcing means turning to the many people outside of your own company, organization or self to do something.

Social technologies, including social networks, make it easier than ever for to bring people together, to communicate with them and to organize them, both as individuals and as a group. New sites now exist that are custom-built to help you manage crowd outreach and the processes of getting something done with many people outside of your organization.

So what is the “something” that you can do — or get done — by tapping into the crowd? Here are some categories and examples of crowdsourcing:


Utilizing the crowd for work sometimes entails “micro-labor:” small, discrete tasks broken out of a bigger project and handled by many distributed workers. Examples of crowdsourcing work sites in this vein include Samasource, CrowdFlower and Mechanical Turk. Or it could be reaching out to the crowd to collaborate on creating something such as a new company logo. Or you could reach out to a crowd to identify a single contractor to do specific work, perhaps through site like Elance.

Another example of a crowd doing “work” for you is by leveraging the knowledge of your more avid customers to provide peer-to-peer support for your new customers, with some guidance from you. A product like BearHug can help you to manage your customer service crowd. (We wrote about Bearhug in July.) Another example of getting a crowd to do work is Wikipedia where people write, edit and police the site without pay.


Polls and surveys are commonly used ways to use the crowd for input. Formal tools for getting input from the crowd include question-and-answer tools like LinkedIn Answers andFacebook Questions. These tools are similar to Yahoo! Answers, but they reach out to your own community, instead of the web population at large.

You can also turn to crowds to beta-test a website or software application, or to troubleshoot a problem. Sites such as uTest and TopCoder offer two different models of tapping into crowds of programmers. The former provides a managed community of professional programmers to run test cycles on other companies’ software products and sites, while the latter works more like a bidding site for managing online programming competitions and competitive software development. In testing situations, input becomes work and in some cases, there is compensation for that work. In other cases, programmers or others provide their input or work at no charge, often to build their portfolios and reputations.


While gathering crowds for social action is a centuries-old activity, in today’s technological interconnected world, the tools we can use to gather and manage crowds are more powerful and efficient than older ways, such as letter-writing or phone calls. Examples of such tools include SeeClickFix, or on a more global scale, One Billion Minds.

Fundraising is also an activity that has benefited from advances in technology. An application such as Facebook Causes provides individuals with a compact set of tools for reaching out to one’s Facebook friends (and their friends) for organizing, action, and fundraising. Kickstarter provides a funding platform to help individuals raise money for creative projects from others from both within and outside of their communities.

The flipside of getting something done through crowdsourcing is to be part of the crowd and doing the work or providing the input. I’ll cover that in my next post.

I’m currently writing a book about crowdsourcing, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Crowdsourcing” (Penguin, Spring 2011), so you can expect to see a few more posts on the subject here on WebWorkerDaily.

18 Tasks You Can Crowdsource

A few weeks ago I wrote about what crowdsourcing is useful for, breaking it down into three main categories: Work, Input and Organizing. Crowdsourcing is a way of getting work done that can help you save time, money and free you up to get to other work at hand.

Here are some ideas for tasks that can be crowdsourced, and links to sites that can help you with those tasks. Note that some of the sites mentioned can be used for several different types of crowdsourcing, and not just the tasks mentioned here.


  • Translation. Need something translated, without having to rely on Google Translation to do the trick? Try MyGenGo.
  • Transcription. Have audio files that need transcribing, such as a podcast? TryCastingWords.
  • Photo tagging. Looking to get photographs tagged or classified and support a good cause? Try the nonprofit crowdsourced labor site Samasource.
  • Keyword optimization. Looking for SEO help? Try Trada.
  • Data verification. Have a long list of business information, like a contact list or URLs, and need that content verified? Try the CrowdFlower self-service site (CrowdFlower CEOLukas Biewald will be speaking about the future of work and crowdsourcing at ourNet:Work conference in San Francisco next month).
  • Website testing. Looking for usability testing for your site? Try
  • Beta testing software. Need some skilled beta testers to test your software or go through your code? Try TopCoder.
  • Article writing. Need some content for your website or blog? Try SquadHelp.


  • Logo design. Looking for a logo for your company? Try
  • Business card design. Need a new business card layout? Try Guerra-Creativa.
  • Print and online ads. Want a print ad or an online banner ad? Try 99designs.
  • Website design. Need a new website interface design? Try crowdSPRING.
  • Product development. Want to see if your cool product concept can become a real product? Try
  • Brand names and taglines. Looking for a new name for a company, product or service or a clever tagline? Try NamingForce.
  • Video. Need a video produced? Try Tongal.
  • Packaging. Need packaging for a new product? Try BootB.
  • Creative campaign. Running a campaign and need a winning idea? Try IdeaBounty.
  • Quick ideas. Need some fast, inexpensive input? Try IdeaOffer.

Whatever your need, crowdsourcing can help you get work done and tap into crowds of talented and skilled workers willing to perform work in new ways. Keep in mind that the work can vary in terms of quality. Most sites that charge for services have some kind of refund policy if you are not 100 percent satisfied, but read the fine print.

How Much Time Does Social Media Marketing Take?

The 18 Social Business Imperatives

The new way to produce breakthroughs in
revenue, cost, and innovation.

Opportunities like Social Business don’t come along often. It is now possible to make a quantum leap in business outcomes. Fast. The jump in results happens across three areas of engagement: the way you engage your employees, customers, and the Social Web.

Leading companies and government agencies apply Social Business practices and Jive technology in 18 distinct areas:


  • Innovation Acceleration
  • Corporate Communications
  • Expertise Location / Corporate Directory
  • M&A Integration
  • Contact Center Enablement
  • Sales & Channel Enablement


  • Event Communities
  • Social Commerce
  • Community-Based Support
  • Account Management
  • Customer Innovation
  • Social Marketing

the Social Web

  • Product Launches
  • Community Recruiting
  • Social Brand Management
  • Service Everywhere
  • Social Selling
  • Competitive Intelligence