Can remote teams achieve the productivity of the office and still allow the convenience of working at home? Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley, who ask this question, find that “the general thinking seems to be swinging toward ‘no’.”

“Large employers,” the authors explain, “are starting to wonder whether remote work actually stifles innovation and productivity…Many tech companies like IBM, Apple, Facebook, and Google rely heavily on remote teams, but some of them have started to discourage the practice…The rationale for this move is that remote workers do not meet by chance at the proverbial watercooler, encounters that, the thinking goes, will lead to better innovation.”

But, Riedl and Woolley propose that it might not be remoteness of the teams that is stifling innovation, but rather the way team members communicate.[1] “People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”

They conclude, “By designing systems that facilitate bursts of communication and collaboration among team members, employers can achieve higher quality collaboration in their teams, all while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely.”

So, assuming the research is correct, it benefits remote workers to get good at working remotely and find ways to create a virtual team watercooler that mimics bursty in-person, spontaneous, and potentially, innovative work conversations.

This concept strikes a positive chord with me. I am currently on an eight-person work team that seems to do this well – even though I didn’t know about “bursty” communication until I read this article. Nevertheless, after circulating it among the team, we agreed our team communication fits the “bursty-followed-by-longer-periods-of-silence” style.

We communicate often and freely, but not incessantly or unnecessarily. Here are the “bursty” things we do:

  • Have daily stand-ups: 30-minute conversations to discuss daily activities and stay closely connected. (We use Skype to talk and share desktops. We also have weekly meetings [more, if needed] to discuss more complex topics.)
  • Utilize collaboration tools:
    • Instant messaging: Quick 1:1 or small group discussions. I often get pings that start with, “Hi, Marsha. Got a minute?” If the subject is complex, we’ll switch to phone or Skype.
    • Email: Distribute/discuss information that isn’t a topic for the weekly meetings – copy the entire team.
    • Document sharing: Centrally store all project documents/files (open to all team members) for editing when appropriate. Discuss who is going to create/update what document and when. (SharePoint)
    • Notes sharing: Centrally store team notes and key takeaways/actions from meetings in chronological order (open to all team members) for easy reference and review. (OneNote)
    • Online project planning: All team members can view/add/monitor tasks and check-off completed ones with an online, interactive project planner for major sprints of work – two-three weeks duration. (Planner)
    • Team calendar: Keep everyone aligned on vacations and out-of-office times.

We also do the standard things that help any team be more effective:

  • Work to build trust: We try to be polite, make sure everyone has a chance to talk, not interrupt, listen, respect opinions, ask questions, and admit mistakes.
  • Maintain transparency: We update each other on outcomes of client meetings (debrief sessions, meeting notes on OneNote) to keep the team aligned on the bigger picture.
  • Understand everyone’s expertise and passions: We try to assign work accordingly, so team members enjoy their work.
  • Make personal connections: We share personal stories to get to know each other better. It’s easier and more fun to work with people you know well.

Each of us enjoys working from home (flexible schedules, more shorts/yoga pants/tee-shirts, less make-up, fewer shaves and haircuts), but we still feel the connectedness and satisfaction of being on a team that produces high-quality, meaningful work.

Contact us and we can help you find ways to improve the effectiveness of your working teams, both remote and office-based. We are passionate about teams.                           

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[1] John Lyden of Expressworks, in his 2018 paper on team effectiveness, Creating a One-Team Organization, comes to the same conclusion. The paper cites research that notes, “communication patterns were an important predictor of a team’s success,” and [for teams] “The ‘Who’ is not the most important factor…It’s the ‘How’ that makes the difference.”