April 10, 2020
Best Practices For Working Remotely
By Anita Williams Woolley, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and TheoryMedia Inquiries
- Director of Communications and Media Relations
The spread of coronavirus has prompted an unprecedented and rapid shift toward remote work and many companies are experiencing dispersed teams for the first time.
After the World Health Organization declared the health crisis an official pandemic on March 11, it’s likely that employees will continue working from home for the foreseeable future since this form of social distancing has proven an effective mitigator of the virus in China, Japan, Italy, and other countries. However, it’s unclear how such an abrupt deviation from standard business practices will affect companies and employees going forward.
As we follow best practices for confronting and minimizing the virus, we can also follow best practices for working remotely, ultimately minimizing stress and communication issues while still promoting successful collaboration. As an associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business — incidentally the number one online MBA program in the world — I’ve studied how companies can harness collective intelligence and collaborate effectively in remote conditions.
Communicate even when it seems unnecessary.
It's very common to overestimate what others located at another site know, or to assume that they understand certain things or see things exactly as you do. Trying to do things remotely without communicating enough is bound to leave a lot of gaps in understanding, so when in doubt, hammer that communication.
Removing the parameters of a physical, collective workspace can be disorienting for some employees, and there are fewer opportunities to recognize and rectify problems in remote settings. This is why it’s crucial for team leaders to clearly communicate goals and priorities and to ensure that everyone understands and supports these goals.
If members are operating with a different understanding of goals and priorities, or if they have conflicting goals because the team leader wants them to do one thing while their boss wants them to do another, then that can create immediate problems in a virtual setting.
In some studies I have done with collaborators, we have found that the most productive teams are characterized by "burstiness," or a period during which they work independently, punctuated by periods of shared work. Such teams often exhibit a higher level of responsiveness to each other; when someone sends a message, others respond right away.
By contrast, the less productive teams might exchange the same number of messages but with bigger delays in between. So coordinating team attention so they know exactly what they are working on together, what they are dividing up and doing separately, and to be responsive to each other so that they can address unexpected issues that might arise will significantly improve productivity.
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Rely on audio communication instead of visual communication.
It might seem counterintuitive, but my research shows that when working remotely, audio conferencing is more effective than video conferencing. In fact, video conferences can actually disrupt the cues that enhance collective intelligence. This is due to how the synchronization of non-verbal cues affects human collaboration.
In face-to-face settings, visual synchrony — such as facial expression — commingles with prosodic cues such as vocal pitch and voice quality to harmonize interpersonal communication. This is how people know when it’s appropriate to speak without interrupting or how a group understands it has collectively agreed to a solution.
However, a recent study I did with collaborators shows that in remote settings, not having access to visual cues increases equality of conversational turn-taking, which then affects collective intelligence positively. Surprisingly, the study also found that visual cues were likely to impede on non-visual, prosodic cues.
So conference calls are actually more effective at elevating a team’s collective objectives than a video conference. This also tells us that the specific platform a team uses to communicate isn’t as important as being able to communicate synchronously when necessary, or having a means of updating each other on continued progress and a system for organizing and accessing shared work products.
Virtual offices allow for greater diversity among team members because you aren’t hampered by as many physical constraints; if time zones and technology allow, people from all over the world can work together.
Study after study shows that team diversity is a good thing. In a recent study I conducted with collaborators, we found that gender and ethnic diversity has a positive indirect effect on group satisfaction and collective intelligence. This is because diversity of surface-level characteristics among team members tends to prime a heightened sense of attention and concentration between members, which in turn promotes collective attention and satisfaction.
Some employers are hesitant to adopt remote work practices simply because they fear productivity and quality will drop when employees are left alone. While that fear may be natural, it’s counter to what we’ve discovered in academia.
In fact, several researchers who study crowdsourcing have argued that in many instances, independent thinkers and solvers can yield results that are superior to those of more traditional, interacting teams. The caveat being that there needs to be a high number of such independent thinkers and solvers. While I don’t dispute these initial observations, I do think results can be improved by introducing some level of collaboration.
As mentioned above, in a recent study I did with collaborators, we found that “burstiness” of team activities leads to better performance. What this means is allowing team members to work independently before coming together for bursts of time to elevate their results through collaboration.
Remarkably, our study revealed that teams with members who work in wildly different time zones were actually more responsive to one another than teams in closer proximity when the concept of “burstiness” was in place.