A Surprising Truth About Geographically Dispersed Teams

Having one member in a remote location helps teams communicate.

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What kind of team works together most effectively? The kind that keeps some distance — between one member and the rest of the team. So suggests a new study on geographically dispersed teams, which finds that it is beneficial for a group to include one member who is at a different location. That “isolate” prompts the group to be more disciplined in its coordination and communication — yielding a better and more productive experience for all members.

In “Subgroups, Imbalance and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams,” a forthcoming article in Organization Science, two researchers examine how the configuration of a distributed team affects its dynamics — and ultimately the quality of its output. Are teams with a core group at headquarters and a small, stellar cluster of experts — say at a research and development facility, a client site or a fabrication plant — capable of forming themselves into a constellation of bright ideas? Or do such groups burst apart like supernovas, leaving each subgroup feeling underappreciated, misunderstood and not closely linked to the team’s endeavor?

It’s a timely question, given that such nontraditional teams are becoming ever more common as corporations cut down on real estate costs, offer employees flexibility and tap into expertise from anywhere and everywhere. “It turns out that configuration does have a significant impact,” notes Michael Boyer O’Leary, assistant professor in the department of organization studies at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “But not exactly in the ways we expected.” O’Leary coauthored the study with Mark Mortensen, the Richard S. Leghorn Career Development Professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The findings “can be acted upon by managers when they design their teams,” notes Mortensen. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice. You have to create a team with the people you have. But where you can make choices, don’t just think in terms of individual members — think about their configuration.”

Specifically, in a study of 62 six-person teams, Mortensen and O’Leary found that including one member who is physically isolated from the rest has the positive effect of stimulating the entire team to behave better. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the isolate, teams in their study used that remote individual as a stimulus to exercise more control over how and when the team members communicated — scheduling the next conference call, for instance, before the current one is over.


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Comments (2)
Team Work
Great research and article on virtual teams. When a cross cultural element is added to the mix its even more interesting. As a result we designed a simulation to show participants exactly what happens at work, in front of them as a team that has come together.

We feel this is the best way to get the real issues on the table and start to develop clear & honest communication structures to deal with the issues. We love that you identified that virtual teams can be in the same building as once we started to run our simulation we discovered that the problems were not just geographical located teams but anyone that does not invest enough face to face time to build trust and allow the benefit of the doubt when dealing with tricky issues. 

We create a simulation game for virtual team that is set in Antarctica (On Thin ICE - http://www.tirian.com/programs-services/dimension-1/on-thin-ice/ ) as we found some of the best researches on this topic are situated there. 

To compliment the corporate research we have also interviewed Antarctic explorers where the peak performance of a virtual team is about life and death. More extreme than corporate but we have discovered that the issues are the same.
oh..really? Did Mortensen and O’Leary study the communication behavior of work teams in regions separated by time zones differences of 10-14 (including daylight saving)hours? I've worked in Shanghai and Beijing and my US-based colleagues have never arranged a teleconference that is in the day time for me and night for them. Most of them in fact did not expect me to call in. Teleconferences for me could start at 10 pm and end at 5 am.  Keeping me in the loop by email is no better.  It's out of sight out of mind.