Shifting dimensions

How to work better together, apart


Published on December 15, 2020

The rapid growth of electronic information and communication media in recent decades has made distributed work much easier, faster, and more efficient. Many companies have responded to the de-centralization of work processes by introducing virtual teams that collaborate across geographical, temporal, cultural, and organizational boundaries. No longer defined by the limited context of differing geographical locations, virtual teams now exist in a much broader context of any team that uses some form of technology to work together. The ubiquitous use of technology had made virtual teams simply just teams.

Jennifer Gibbs is a professor of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For the last 20 years, she’s been studying global virtual collaboration. Her focus is on how teammates can collaborate across different kinds of boundaries, what communication challenges they face, and how they can use technology to overcome those challenges.

“The study of virtual work has changed over the past couple of decades, as communication technology has become more socially oriented and interactive,” says Gibbs. 

Gibbs’ research starting in the 1990s coincided with the growth of the world wide web. The concept of having teams of people who were geographically distributed across time and space was just beginning to form. There were assumptions that virtual team members were disconnected and isolated because they’re behind the computer screen and the technologies that were available to communicate were pretty much limited to email. So Gibbs’ research focused on how to help virtual workers become more connected with one another. With the widespread adoption of more interactive technology such as teleconferencing and messaging apps over the last decade, Gibbs’ research transitioned into how teammates can best collaborate using these technologies. In the current era of constant connectivity, the research looks for ways to help workers disconnect and disengage to maintain wellbeing.

Now with the accelerated rise of remote work driven by the global pandemic, many have been forced into remote work, and with that, we’ve seen what’s different and challenging about work when more teams are virtual. 

Recognizing the challenges

Many companies, like Basecamp, have been remote since day one. The challenges they’ve been tackling all these years are now ubiquitous.

“As companies struggle to go remote, what ends up happening is companies begin to try to simulate the office remotely, which is not really the right way to do things, although it’s the natural way to do things,“ says Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, in a recent Q&A about remote work.

Fried is saying that we shouldn’t just be turning all our in-person meetings into Zoom meetings. Constantly using synchronous forms of communication can be overwhelming. Over the last few months, many people who have been working from home have experienced ‘Zoom fatigue.’ The lack of non-verbal cues makes online meetings feel more tiring than face-to-face meetings as our brains try to focus more intensely on the words being spoken, keep constant eye-contact, and read expressions. There’s no more walking between meeting rooms and often there’s little downtime to relax your mind between meetings. 

The increase of virtual work globally will also likely exacerbate the “headquarters knows best syndrome,” in which a company’s main office accrues higher status than the subsidiary locations. According to Gibbs, it’s inevitable that teams that work together globally will experience status differences based on location. Working at headquarters often provides more venues to access information, such as having hallway conversations, making it easier to stay in the loop. Not incidentally, though often unintentionally, this can lead to an uneven distribution of resources and allocation of responsibilities. 

And perhaps the most human challenge is our starvation for social interaction more than ever before.

“You take it for granted when you're in an office and you always see people and have informal conversations with them,” says Gibbs. “That's the hardest thing with online communication. It’s more often task-oriented and you know you're just getting to the point and sharing information.”

Gibbs’ research the last few decades have explored these challenges and the ways that virtual teams have tackled them. Here are some tips based on what she’s learned.

Determine when to use synchronous vs. asynchronous communication

Gibbs says both forms of communication are important, but the way we use them should be differentiated. She recommends teams themselves figure out which type of communication fits best with the work their team does, in order to find the most efficient way of working and avoid miscommunication. In a new study of knowledge workers from The Economist Intelligence Unit commissioned by Dropbox, more than half of survey respondents said miscommunication has increased since work from home.

“Using asynchronous communication is helpful for transmission of information,” says Gibbs. “So if you have documents or reports that you want to share with people, you're probably not going to recite everything in a face-to-face meeting. It also takes away the burden of taking live notes and having to repeat what was said. And it allows people to read everything on their own time. Synchronous is better for building relationships, making decisions, and trying to establish shared meaning like determining what the vision and goals are.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the Dropbox communications team in Australia has been working on finding ways to work suitable for their team. And with the announcement of Virtual First, where remote work will be the primary experience, their team has realized the importance of being intentional about communication methods because they realize they’ll be working from home more in the future.

“What we did for the Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) teams is we created a rules of engagement type document with best practices for how and when to use synchronous and asynchronous communication,” says Le Tran, head of communications for APJ. “It includes tips for how we communicate and collaborate as a team as well as with others outside of our team, so that we're respecting people's time and not imposing our own schedules on others.”

The playbook categorizes chat and video conferencing as synchronous ways of working, and email and working in Dropbox Paper as asynchronous. For synchronous work, it suggests sending meeting agendas ahead of time and limiting weekly meetings to 25 minutes. For asynchronous work, it suggests giving as much context as possible in documents and giving clear instructions on what needs to be reviewed or approved. 

Do more planning and pre-work

Planning and pre-work is even more important in remote work, because things take longer online with fewer physical and social context cues,” says Gibbs. “And if things take longer, then that increases the likelihood of Zoom fatigue.”

Better planning and providing people with information in advance helps to structure the options so that virtual meeting time is optimized for discussion and decision making. It can also help to enhance social dynamics. For example, putting people into breakout rooms in Zoom takes more time and requires more forethought, but as a result, people have more personal interaction. For longer events like conferences or trainings, it’s important to plan out the structure in more detail than you would a live event, like having shorter sessions, back-up plans, and extra time allotted in case things run over.

Level the playing field with teams in subsidiary locations

A study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review shows that making sure employees across globally distributed locations have equal footing can lead to increased company performance and growth, greater contribution from subsidiary locations, and richer lateral exchanges.

To help level the playing field, Gibbs recommends alternating meeting times so that, for instance, both European and Asian offices are prioritized, establishing common standards for communication, taking time to learn and be understanding of cultural differences. It’s also important to take the time to chat with remote teammates as you would with a colleague in the office.

Be more intentional about social interaction

“Humans are social animals,” says Gibbs. “We also derive benefits—in the form of social capital—from our relationships with others, including access to knowledge, opportunities, and social support. We have an opportunity to learn more about our colleagues by seeing their home environment in Zoom, including pets, children, and personal effects.”

It takes more work, but we can create opportunities for social interaction with remote colleagues by making sure we don't just talk about work but include informal, social communication in our meetings. Once people get past the initial weirdness, events like virtual happy hours, coffee breaks, or game nights can help build relationships.

Gibbs says, “the most important thing is to always keep your global colleagues and partners in mind, whether it’s thinking about your project goals and how to accomplish them, or planning the next team event.”

These social interactions will only become more important as the workforce becomes more remote and virtual teams continue to grow.