Despite some resistance from middle management and the occasional exception like Yahoo, remote work is becoming the norm — and for good reason. A 2014 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that remote employees experienced greater contentment, increased productivity and were less likely to quit. The author of the study, Nicholas Bloom, states, “The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits, we think. More research needs to be done on creative work and teamwork, but the evidence still suggests that with most jobs, a good rule of thumb is to let employees have one to two days a week at home.”
As businesses increasingly offer remote work as an option for skilled employees, distributed teams create new challenges for management. Mark Mortensen suggests in the Harvard Business Review that to strengthen remote teams, managers need to tackle two primary roadblocks: lack of shared identity and lack of shared context.
Mortensen believes that geographical, cultural, temporal, linguistic and configurational (the number of individuals in each location) distance also creates social distance. “A lack of a shared identity has a far stronger impact on team dynamics than any of the types of distance individually.” With remote teams, a sense of us vs. them can divide groups, increasing coordination issues and limiting “transactive memory,” or an understanding of “where different knowledge is held in the team.” Distance also limits “what you know about other people, causing miscommunications and disagreements.” A lack of shared context can interfere with mutual understanding, aiding conflict.
To tackle these two challenges, Mortensen suggests applying a team effectiveness model while emphasizing shared purpose and transparency of information. “Remind your team that you are all working to the same end and that you need each other to get there. Doing so at the outset and intermittently throughout the project will help you build a strong sense of shared identity.” Transparency is integral to any project, but it is especially significant to creating a shared context in distributed teams. “Importantly, that includes information not only about the work being done but also about the environment in which people are working (ex. structural changes, office politics, even personal life events).”