Will the Exodus Back to the Office Increase Productivity?

by Nancy Ordman

One year ago IBM, long a champion for telecommuting, started bringing employees back to physical offices. Other large employers like Apple and Facebook are also dissolving virtual teams; other companies of all sizes are doubtless following the lead of these tech giants. The rationale? The long-held belief in the power of the water cooler and the stairwell encounters to promote serendipitous meetings that result in brilliant outcomes for the company. Face-to-face communication, managers believe, is the single best stimulant for creative thought and problem-solving.

New research calls into question the reasoning behind the remote-worker roundup. Christoph Riedl (Northeastern University) and Anita Williams Woolley (Carnegie Mellon) asked whether distance in and of itself limits the productivity of virtual teams. They concluded that successful virtual teams used a “bursty” (the researchers’ term) communications style, rather than conducting the kind of regular communication and feedback encouraged by the conventional wisdom of group management.

Using a randomized controlled trial, the researchers organized 260 software workers drawn from 50 countries into 52 five-person teams. Each team worked on developing an algorithm that would recommend the optimal contents for a space flight medical kit. Since in-office employees often enjoy incentives like free food or on-site gyms, the virtual team members earned cash prizes. Unlike previous researchers, Riedl and Woolley were agnostic about team composition; they did not consciously constitute teams so that each group had individuals with specific skill sets. Earlier research attributed successful team outcomes to proper team composition – that is, each team had the right assortment of skills and backgrounds to imbue success.

Research results agree that communication is a crucial ingredient in a team’s successful completion of its charge. The surprise is that bursty communication – not regular meetings with agendas – makes the difference.

Riedl and Woolley characterize bursty communication as rapid, energetic, and focused on a specific topic. For example, if a team member needs feedback on a specific question before he can keep working, shooting out a fast question via email or an instant message conveys urgency and requires team members to bear down on that one topic. The research team observed that these communications bursts, followed by stretches of quiet time, occurred when teams were accomplishing the tasks set for them. The authors compare bursty communication to water cooler communication. Both types are immediate, candid, and focused.

The takeaway from this research: according to the authors, “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.” Employers can increase virtual team productivity and success by devising systems that facilitate bursty communications.