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

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