Social interaction and remote teams

2014

I came across an article in this month's Discover Magazine that confirms what many of us intuitively know to be true. Social interaction, or at least the right sort of interaction, makes for a happier and more productive workplace.

The article "Sensing Success" by Adam Piore, explored an MIT study that tracked people while they worked. I'm assuming this was voluntary and that no tranquilizer darts were used. They looked at who spoke to whom and for how long. The results were rather interesting.

The assumption going in was people who interacted with diverse, large groups of others would be happier and more productive. Actually, what they found is that the happiest workers were those who worked with a small, tight-knit group of co-workers who speak frequently.

Additionally, not all of that interaction happened at desks. Most of it happened during breaks when team members met informally in places like the break room or the coffee machine. In fact coffee really seems to matter - the placement of coffee machines actually impacted the opportunities for good things to happen.

The study also found that erecting barriers to this informal communication, like splitting teams between separate floors, dramatically reduced the positive effects of being co-located in the same building.

Even more interesting, they found the solution wasn't to completely reduce structure with "open concept" offices. The meters determined that certain people were the hub around which communication flowed. The groups self-selected who those people were, and it happened organically. It couldn't really be forced.

But if this is true for physically co-located workers, that doesn't mean that there aren't any useful lessons for remote teams as well.

First, it's clear that there's an inherent problem with getting productivity and job satisfaction when people don't have that social interaction. The study found that the interactions that really create satisfied and productive workmates are:

  • Frequent
  • Take place among a small, manageable number of teammates
  • Both formal and informal
  • Unstructured and unplanned

While it's hard to gather around a virtual coffee urn, remote teams can do some things to enhance their teamwork and create a good psychological environment to foster interaction and creativity.

  • Encourage "rich" communication such as webcams and phone for the most informal occasions. Short conversations can help people bond as much as big events.
  • Make sure people talk to each other often. As the manager, that can mean stepping back and insisting people reach out to team members rather than serving as the mediator
  • Don't discourage casual conversation. Too often we shut down conversations or meetings in the name of "making the best use of our time". We're not gossiping, we're bonding…and now we have the science to prove it. Knowing your teammates also have kids in soccer can be a powerful incentive to communicate more frequently, or at least less formally.
  • Identify those team members who are your "hubs". Find out why those people are so intertwined with their peers. Is it simply that they're gregarious, or do they have a particular strength or expertise the team has identified?

The bad news is that working remotely creates very real barriers to working together well. The good news is that with a little forethought and planning, you can create other ways for people to get to know each other casually and informally.

When's the last time you stopped to examine how well your team communicates with each other? What do you think you can do about it?

When will you start?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.