A Quick Guide to Working Successfully at a Distance
Working with others well is key to the success, whether they be collocated with you or remote. Happily, there is a lot known about working at a distance, from how to select people who can do this well, to teach people how to work remotely, to motivate people to acquire the right habits, and to provide the right technologies to support working at a distance. The following is gleaned from the literature in Informatics, Psychology, and Business presented in a practical way to help you adopt best practices and make your distance work work.
Some personalities are more collaborative than others. Those people who are extroverted, for example, work better with others than those that are introverted. In addition, those with good self-management, good communication skills, cultural sensitivity, and those who are comfortable with technology, including how to learn as its changes, serve as good team members who can accommodate to what is required when working at a distance. The good communication skills that are important include being able to avoid dominating the conversation and encouraging others to contribute to the conversation. In addition, groups perform best if the members are socially sensitive, those who can read another’s thoughts through facial expressions and various actions. Women are naturally more socially sensitive than men, but men can be taught the requisite skills.
Collaboration works best with the right leaders. Leaders do best if they have experience with planning and managing daily activities, if they can deal with risk, intervene in crises, and who represent the team to outsiders, etc. People who wish to become managers should be given the opportunity to try out their skills in these areas.
There is a lot about teamwork and collaboration in general that can be taught. Paraphrasing from the book, Working Together Apart, (Olson and Olson, 2014), there are a number of skills that people can learn to make collaboration and in particular distant collaboration better. Everything is harder at a distance, so these things about collaboration in general are more important when the people are working at a distance.
- Leaders, as part of their planning, should assign work to people so that those who are distant from each other require less day-to-day communication, called loose coupling. Distance matters, especially in people’s abilities to be aware of what others are doing and in communicating with them. This is especially true if the people doing work together are in different time zones or span different cultural boundaries. Anywhere tightly coupled work is required, that work should be assigned to people who are co-located.
- In order for people to collaborate, they need to both act in a trustworthy manner (i.e., do what they say they will do) and trust others. There are a number of trust-building activities that a leader can have the individuals go through, like ropes courses and collaborative puzzle-solving where the rules create an unusual situation (e.g., one cannot speak), requiring new approaches to communication and ways to encourage others to cooperate. But simply being co-located brings with it ancillary benefits: people share a common surround (e.g, weather, local news and sports) and by having meals together, share aspects of their lives that show their trust and trustworthiness.
- People with different backgrounds often use words in different ways and have different ways of working. Both differences create confusion and distrust. One way to create what we call “common ground” is to call out the confusions (e.g. ask what an acronym means) and to explicitly settle on ways of working (e.g., discussing different work styles like planning vs. creating a flurry of activity right before the deadline) to settle on one that all could live with. Both the calling out of words and the discussions of work styles take time but reap benefits in the future of misunderstandings and mistrust.
- Like personal self-efficacy, the belief that one can overcome obstacles, a group can create collective self-efficacy. This is the belief that a team can overcome obstacles, like a shortage of funding or unforeseen events. These teams are more likely to find workarounds or additional toolkits rather than give up.
- Leaders should know how to create plans and communicate them as well as individual roles and responsibilities. This often entails “all hands meetings” or electronic messaging systems like Slack or GitHub, where ideas can be shared regularly with a group. The more the individuals know about project management in general, the more smoothly the collaboration will progress.
- People will more likely accept decisions made by leaders if they feel their opinions were heard. This is not to suggest a democracy, but rather that the leader decides but has heard the voices of those concerned.
People need to be “collaboration ready.” This means that there are incentives in place that encourage cooperation and collaboration. If incentives are in place to reward only individual behavior, there is likely to be competition and less collaboration. There should be rewards not only for collaborative behavior (e.g., in research, credit for being a co-author on a paper) but for having a real effect (e.g., in research, turning results into policy).
Provide Requisite Technologies
There are a number of technologies explicitly developed to help people collaborate better. The important point is that for collaboration to succeed, a suite of technologies is needed.
- There are the technologies to support communication, both real-time, like Skype and Zoom, and asynchronous, like email or Slack.
- New technologies like Sococo and TeamFlo offer awareness of one’s teammates, whether they are working now, in a meeting or absent. The technologies show a floorplan of a fictitious office or laboratory, with avatars representing the players in various locations like their office with the door closed, ajar, or open indicating interruptablity; in a meeting room with others (where video connectivity is automatic just by having one’s avatar in that room); at the water cooler open to informal chat, etc. These work well when everyone remembers to place one’s avatar in the location on screen that reflects their actual working state.
- Next are the systems that record and make accessible various kinds of information, from meeting minutes to data on personnel characteristics. It is vital that the group be told where that information will be, whether in the cloud (Google Drive, Dropbox) or in a secure local location and what the format will be in order to make it accessible to those who might need it. Information is then retrieved for presentation, either through data analysis, visualization, or text.
- Other information about people’s availability can help schedule meetings typically done through shared calendars and polling meeting participants for availability, like Doodle.
These technologies need to be available; they need to be taught to those who must use them, not just their interfaces but how to use them in the work they are to do.
In addition, there is a lot known about what is important in communication that video conferencing tries to offer. However, people using video need to adopt certain conventions:
- Place the monitor on which the remote people are being viewed at eye level so that they are neither dominant (by being perceived as tall) or dismissed (by being perceived as short). The volume should be at a level that all other people in the meeting can hear.
- Place microphones where the remote people can hear anyone who is speaking.
- The camera showing the others to the remote people should show everyone at eye-level to them. There is information gleaned from people being able to see who is looking at whom, information that is typically lost with today’s affordable technologies. The future might bring telepresence robots which can move and adjust themselves to see what they want to see.
- When bandwidth is low (because of inherent limits or heavy traffic), audio should take priority over video. We can continue conversation if we can hear and be heard, but not if we can see the person’s mouth move but not hear them.
- The video/audio connection should be on before and after the meeting officially starts and ends. This is to mimic the ability to have an informal conversation with individuals as they enter or before they leave. People are reminded of a needed communication when they see a teammate and can share laughs about the weather or sports, building trust and belongingness.
- The remote person’s camera should be at eye level. If the remote person is on a laptop, the laptop should be raised, for example, on a set of books to raise it high enough. The picture of the other people should be near the camera so that when the remote person looks at them, it looks to them as if they are looking at them. If one looks as if they are looking down or away, that signals disinterest to the others.
- The remote person’s audio should be audible to everyone in the other locations. Volume too low indicates uncertainty in what one is saying, and volume too loud makes things sound forceful.
Olson, J. S. August, 2021
A summary table of the pros and cons of working from home is here: https://tsal.uci.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2022/05/Summary-of-benefits-and-challenges-of-flexible-work.docx
An interesting article about Zoom Fatigue is here: https://tmb.apaopen.org/pub/nonverbal-overload/release/2