Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Bursty remote communication

When Taylor and Haws first invented the watercooler in 1906, little did they know that it would become such an essential part of our folklore about how people communicate in offices.  Having worked as part of remote and virtual teams for the past 12 years, I have not stood by a watercooler for a long time – but somehow still managed to have had conversations with colleagues and picked up most of what’s going on in the organization.  But it’s not always easy. So what is the best way to communicate remotely when you don’t have a watercooler to hang around?

A recent Randomized Control Trial with remote software teams spanning 50 countries found that “remote teams that stagnate do so not because their members aren’t hanging out at the watercooler, it’s their communication style that’s to blame. If they switch to a style that is more aligned with the normal patterns of face-to-face conversation, remote teams can be just as successful and creative as face-to-face ones.”

The style of remote communication that led to better work outcomes was “bursty” communication – where ideas were shared and responded to quickly during periods of high activity, and then longer periods of silence.  On the other hand the researchers found that if there was a long lag-time between responses or they were dispersed across multiple topic threads, the quality of work suffered and team morale went down.

The effects were strong – with one standard deviation increase in their measure of ‘burstiness’ leading to a 24% increase in team performance.  Interesting as well was how they were able to reach this conclusion – they used advanced statistical tools and machine learning to “leverage digital trace data left by the computer-mediated communication of the remote software teams”.

So what can you do about this with your teams? If you don’t have machine learning and statistical algorithms on hand just yet – go back to basics and list out all the different ways your team communicates – email, Skype chat, Slack, Yammer and so on. How does the remote conversation tend to flow across these channels – is there periods of fast comment and response followed by periods of silence, or do posts tend to hang unanswered for a while?

If the answer is the latter, share these findings with your team and discuss how you can move towards a culture of bursty comms. If you have lots of different but similar threads in your online collaboration tool – spend an hour editing these down so that conversations on the same topic all happen in once place.

You may not be able to quench your thirst at the same time – but you will still be able to reap all the benefits of those infamous watercooler moments.


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