Carnegie Mellon University


April 25, 2018

TL; DR: What Can Make or Break a Remote Team’s Mission

By Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and strategy at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University and Christoph Riedl, assistant professor of information systems and network science at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University

In an economy where working from home is becoming more mainstream than exception, large employers are starting to question whether such arrangements are stifling innovation and productivity.

A recent decision by IBM to end remote working arrangements for its marketing department – something Big Blue pioneered when millennials were just a gleam in their parents’ eyes – mimics the policy of heavy-hitters such as Yahoo, Reddit, and Best Buy. Much-admired companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google similarly discourage the practice. They try luring people to linger at work with free food and laundry services. Some have gone so far as to propose that all bathrooms are located in just one part of the building to encourage more random interaction among employees – the theory being that these chance encounters will somehow lead to better innovation.

But the problem with these solutions is they don’t address the true underlying cause. Remote teams that stagnate do so not because their members aren’t hanging out at the watercooler; rather, it’s their communication style that’s to blame. If they simply switch to a style that is more aligned with the normal patterns of in-person conversations, 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.

In recent research published in the Academy of Management Discoveries, we show that remote teams who communicate in bursts – exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity – perform much better than those whose conversations involve long lag time between responses.

In our randomized controlled trial, we studied 260 software workers spanning 50 different countries, separating them into teams and charging them with the same task: develop an algorithm that can recommend the ideal contents of a medical kit used on a space flight.

We offered about half the teams cash prizes – the equivalent of those Silicon Valley perks like gourmet food trucks and on-site gym and laundry services. It might surprise some employers to learn that while the incentives did spur some activity and effort, they ultimately did nothing to improve the quality of the work.

What did lead to better outcomes was the “bursty” communication style of the successful teams, where ideas and solutions were communicated and responded to quickly. By contrast, in environments where communication and feedback were delayed or multiple threads on many different topics were created, teams suffered and the quality of their work suffered.

Employers might read the results of our research and think they can more easily foster the right communication style if everyone comes to the office. But there are good reasons to reconsider that strategy.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 25 percent of all U.S. employees work remotely at least some of the time. And a study by software service provider PGI shows they strongly prefer the arrangement, too: 80 percent of respondents reported higher morale when working from home.

Moreover, teams are increasingly global, harnessing the intellectual capital of employees who are scattered around the world. So it’s not only sometimes undesirable to force workers into the same physical space, it’s often impractical, too.

By designing systems that facilitate bursts of communication and collaboration among team members, employers can achieve the similar quality levels while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely. And that creates innovation, no matter where the watercooler – or the bathroom – is located.