Does working apart from each other make it harder to work as a team? On one level, the answer would seem to be no. After all, we have more tools and ways of communicating than ever before—from email to webcams to getting on an airplane and meeting in person. While that’s true, our guts tell us that of course, it’s more difficult and we’d all prefer to be together if we can. What’s a leader to do?
The title of a recent Atlantic article, “When Working From Home Doesn’t Work,” seems to indicate that remote working is doomed. That companies like IBM and others have learned in order to get top collaborative work from people, they want people in close physical proximity.
There’s much truth to the article, but there are also a couple of take-aways from it. After all, it might sound good to have everyone working together, but the realities of the modern workplace (real estate costs, lifestyle choices, hiring the best people regardless of location, and the demands of nation-and-global business) make that not entirely practical. So here are the key points.
- While the business world has changed a lot in 40 years, people have not. This is borne out by the fact that we are still citing a 1977 study that references “the Allen Curve.” Basically this was research that looked at engineers working and found that if they sat more than 30 feet from each other, the likelihood of them communicating with each other dropped to almost nothing. On one hand, this tells us that people like easy, fast, casual and ad-hoc conversation with those around them (no surprise) and that the more work it takes to communicate, the less likely it is to happen in the same way.
- The article points out that certain types of work lends itself better to remote working than others. It all depends on what you measure. If personal productivity—how much work, or how many calls, or how much gets written—is the main metric, having people where they are comfortable and not likely to be interrupted by those in a 30-foot radius is key. If collaboration and brainstorming are the goal, the more frequently people are together, the more information gets shared, built on, and leveraged.
- Tools are great if people choose to use them, and too often they don’t. The article points out that the inherent flaw in all the cool new tools (Slack, Skype for Business, videocams,) is that they depend on people wanting to use them. Let’s face it. If I lift my head from my desk and see Bob working on something, and I have a question, my eyes, mouth, ears all engage to seek and interpret the information I need. You just ask the question or make the comment. If you need to write it in an email, there are a whole series of questions, decisions, and actions that go into that communication. You’re less likely to seek the information in the first place if it’s a hassle.
- Teams, and especially their leaders, need to understand this dynamic and prepare accordingly. Not only do we need to make sure people have tools available, and know how to use them. We also have to have frequent, candid discussions about the need for communication, and create time in meetings and workflow for this to occur. Also, budget for face to face meetings occasionally.
At the end of the day, your company or team might decide that they need to be together all the time. More likely, circumstances will force you to be apart at least part of the time, and try to mitigate the inevitable gaps in communication. By being aware of the inherent challenges, you can be smarter about when, how and especially why you communicate as an organization.
We can help. If you have questions about how your team works, or would like to help develop the skills in your leaders to meet the challenges of how we work today, please reach out to us for a no-risk consultation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.