Work Within Distributed Teams: Why it’s More than Tools and Techniques

posted on April 20th 2017 in Productivity & Remote work with 0 Comments

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When it comes to the work performance of distributed teams, you will find basically two kinds of information:

1) A huge overview of tools for distributed teams and the best ones to use

2) The notion that teams who are physically close perform the best

Regarding the tools, there has never been better ways to organize distributed work life by helpful apps and other services. Find some inspiration on Refuga, Inc, or even Buffer, which has its own list of favorite tools. The use of those tools does simplify the everyday work life of your distributed team, even if only because of very basic things such as management of timezones, communication, or having a common platform to share documents. But the sheer fact that a team uses Mural, Zoom, or instant messaging doesn’t necessarily improve their way of communicating and working together or the team spirit.


The “water cooler effect”…?

Regarding the physical proximity, there are a variety of articles and scientific papers written over its (claimed) performance enhancing effect on teams. Also IBM’s latest business move shows how strong the belief in the power of the mysterious “water cooler effect” still is. Let’s have a closer look on what really affects the work performance and team spirit of distributed colleagues.


The four C’s

Reducing the outcome of team work to the working “shoulder to shoulder” issue is too narrowly considered. Recent research has found four effects which influence the quality of teamwork: collaboration, communication, coordination and cohesion. I’ll call them the four C’s. Collaboration determines the frequency and quality of exchange. Communication is about the way people work together and how they understand each other’s tasks. Coordination is shown through effort and work contribution. Finally, cohesion is the way unity is created within the team.

Regarding the issue of distance, there is not only “spatial distance” of how far colleagues are separated from each other physically. Work is also influenced by “temporal distance” when team members are in different time zones and have to organize synchronous communication. Last but not least there is “social distance.” This describes how emotionally close team members feel and it is the basis of every team culture or team spirit.

Each of these distances has a different effect on the four C’s within a team. That means, that for example communication is influenced in different ways when team members sit in different offices (spatial distance) than when team members do not know each other very well (social distance).


How social bonds affect outcome

Research results show that social distance plays a crucial role in team performance. Compared to physical and temporal distance it is the only one to affect all of the four C’s. Moreover, it has the strongest influence on the quality of teamwork. This leads to a very interesting insight:

By creating social proximity within teams, the negative effects of physical distance and time zone differences can be diminished.

Common social norms, shared values, and mutual trust create social ties among team members and reduce the “social distance.” But getting close to each other on a personal level needs a more solid basis than sharing desks or meeting randomly at the coffee machine. It is more the “unofficial,” not office related connections, where personal bonds are built that create a solid basis for team performance. Team building events and retreats play a crucial role for reducing the “social distance” between colleagues and therefore they directly influence the overall performance of your team (read about the benefits of team retreats in my latest blog post).


New implications for managers of distributed teams

The shift of focus on the work of remote teams also has several implications for their managers. Instead of herding the team back in the office as IBM did, or having them waste their time in workshops on remote skills and techniques, managers need to help their team improve on the four C’s by building up their social ties. If you want to learn more on the changing role of managers of distributed teams stay tuned on my blog!

For workshops on remote working backed with 10 years of experience in remote working and 7 years of experience in the design of learning programs, feel free to contact me!