Menu ▼

The science behind remote work

I discovered an interesting lecture posted on Mastodon several weeks ago. Dr. Janet Vertesi (Associate Professor of Sociology Princeton University) presented Remote Work the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Way Forward for FSW Workshop 2023 hosted by Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lecture is a compilation of findings from more than four decades of studying remote work; it’s not a new phenomenon as many think.

I copied key findings from several slides (all content in bullet points is copied) for easier reference in the future and added a few comments where appropriate. I highly recommend watching the lecture if you want more details, study references, and additional commentary from Dr. Vertesi.

There are advantages to bringing distributed teammates together to solve complex problems, BUT:

(minute 6)

  • It can’t be entirely remote. Remote work requires in-person time, including travel to participating sites and socializing among members.
  • Remote work trends toward miscommunication and personal conflict without significant work to produce and sustain situational awareness and strong ties.
  • It requires particular organization of the work. It’s best suited for tasks that are not highly integrative or creative, and for organizations that are more hierarchical than flat.
  • It takes up to 3x more time to do integrative tasks remotely and requires more coordination meetings, but workers feel more productive solo & dislike meetings.
  • Workers feel competent getting the job done in their own way, but it’s hard to stay abreast of developments and negatively impacts their assessments of teammates.

It’s all about communication

(minute 8)

  • Functional teams experience clear communication, to and from managers and among teammates, about group goals and tasks.
  • It’s not just about direct expression! Communication requires common ground upheld by situational awareness, peripheral cues, culture, and informal interactions, spontaneous communication.
  • People try to ground their conversations with as little effort as possible.
  • Collocation facilitates this readily and imperceptibly: “the frequency of spontaneous, informal communication has dramatic effects on the strength of …ties and on the evolution of activities that people do together…”
  • Too little face time produces miscommunication and stress, including misunderstandings over email, phone, text, chat.
  • Without situational awareness and common ground, task awareness-including group status, direction, and co-workers' activities-is more limited, and workers attend more to their task at hand.

The last statement reminds me of a summary of another study of Microsoft employees I wrote about two years ago in the middle of the pandemic:

Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.

It’s something I observed at Google too. Existing strong ties can be maintained through technology, but weak ties are much more difficult to turn into strong ties remotely. Weak ties are essential to innovation, so one needs to put in extra effort to reach out and communicate and not tend to only immediate transactional needs of a project.

Regarding the bullet point about how collocation facilitates informal communication, I had this example in mind for a long time. There is no concept of a person next to you in a virtual meeting with many people. One person is speaking and everyone else is listening. In non-virtual meetings, people can talk to each other in smaller groups during breaks or before the meeting starts. Those conversations are not just chit-chat but serve in discovery and relationship building.

How to restore situational awareness

(minute 9)

  • Structured management and increasing formalization is necessary, but this can place extra burdens on the group through more meetings & coordination infrastructure.
  • Restoring common ground through situational awareness technologies, including tools for “shared gaze” and software tracking tools.
  • A study of the Europa Clipper science team in 2018 demonstrated severe drops in inter-team awareness, integration, visibility, and coordination when they did not meet in person, remedied by in-person time.

Learning from experiences of and interviews with owners and employees of many fully distributed companies even before COVID, meeting monthly, quarterly, or annually in person is standard practice. For them, “distributed” describes how they operate most of the time, not all the time.

Humans are embodied beings. There’s something about us sharing a space together that is impossible to recreate in other ways. I wonder what effects will the desire to travel less for work, current cost cutting, and the effort to reduce the carbon footprint have on how the globally distributed workforce operates.

What successful remote teams do

(minute 15)

  1. Meet in person on a regular cadence to uphold trust and working relations.
  2. Maintain common ground through a strong culture and rituals like meeting practices, shared objects and focuses of attention.
  3. Set aside opportunities for in-person “water-cooler talk” for informal information exchange “beyond the charts”
  4. Smooth miscommunications by attending to situational awareness and relations between sites.
  5. Segment the work, keep tasks and roles delineated and loosely-coupled, and have clear guidelines and reporting practices.
  6. Deploy in-person intensive meetings for strategic thinking, integrative work, prioritization, onboarding, and goal-setting.
  7. Reserve individual, well-scoped tasks for remote periods when people can be productive at their own pace in their own space.

Previous blog post:
Leading in Tech 17

Stay up to date:
Email · RSS feed · LinkedIn · Twitter · Mastodon

Back to top ▲