How the best remote teams communicate   

Huddle for a few, except virtually.
Huddle for a few, except virtually.
Image: Reuters/Shaun Best
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Do people come up with more creative ideas when they all show up to work in the same place, or are remote teams and distributed workforces just as skilled at collaborating?

These questions can trigger passionate responses from those who believe in banning remote work for the sake of the serendipitous conversations that happen in an office, and the opposing camp: those who defend distributed team models and say they’re happier and more productive when they can work from anywhere.

However as natural disasters and, more recently, the coronavirus outbreak have shown us, there isn’t always a choice. Short-term and long-term forces suggest that more people are going to be working from places other than HQ as we look ahead. As such, we ought to know as much as possible about what helps remote teams perform.

One recent paper suggests the answer has much to do with “burstiness.”

Keep it short and sweet

The study, published by Academy of Management Discoveries in 2018, was conducted by Christoph Riedl of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, and Anita Williams Woolley, a professor at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. Together they found that “bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams,” the co-authors write for Behavioral Scientist.

“[I]t might not be distance per se that limits remote teams,” they argue.

The pair’s research set out to determine whether financial incentives and skill levels would impact a distributed group’s ability to be innovative. To test this, the professors analyzed the performance and communication style of 250 software workers in 50 countries, assigned to 52 teams. All were tasked with building an algorithm that could recommend the most helpful items to include in a first aid kit on a space flight.

The teams were randomly assigned so that skill levels could not account for higher or lower levels of creativity or effectiveness. Additionally, half the teams were offered cash prizes to allow the researchers to measure how much the promise of a pay-out would promote creative thinking.

Mimic in-person conversations

“It might surprise some employers to learn that while the incentives did spur some activity and effort, incentives ultimately did nothing to improve the quality of the work,” the researchers write.

“What did lead to better outcomes was having a ‘bursty’ communication style, where ideas were communicated and responded to quickly,” they add. “By contrast, in environments where communication and feedback were delayed or dispersed across multiple threads, teams suffered, and the quality of their work suffered.”

The experiment didn’t investigate why this was true, but the professors propose that bursts of communication might stand out as important to remote workers. If your attention is drawn into a project, a sudden rise in chatter might register on an employee’s radar and say “pay attention.” Non-stop “talking,” on the other hand, is easy to tune out.

At the same time, those bursts of exchanges left time for longer periods of focused work.

If scattered teams are under-performing, the co-authors would suggest they mimic patterns of in-person conversation, or at least as much as multiple-time zones will allow. When they do, they write, “remote teams can be just as successful—and creative—as those who are spending long hours at their desk, noshing sushi on the company dime.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the first name of one of the study’s co-authors. His name is Christoph Riedl, not Christopher.