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.