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Over the past decade, our research team has extensively studied group collaboration in both face-to-face and remote settings. Our findings suggest that this decision of where coworkers are located is not as critical as some assume. It’s not where we work that matters the most; it’s how the work is done and who is doing it.
In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we analyzed the results from more than 5,000 participants in over 1,300 groups across 22 different samples and found that groups working remotely can be as effective as groups working face to face. More specifically, we measured the collective intelligence of groups — their ability to work together effectively on a wide range of tasks — and found very little difference in the factors that explain collective intelligence of the face-to-face and remote teams.
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We did find that the process of how the work was done and who was doing the work were significant predictors of collective intelligence in both cases. For instance, the largest predictor of collective intelligence is a group’s collaboration process. More specifically, two aspects of how groups coordinate their efforts are important: first, that they figure out which member is the best at different tasks and have that person take the lead on it; and, second, that members coordinate their efforts so that they cover all of the different tasks and don’t leave things unfinished. Our analyses show that coordinating members’ skills and covering all of the tasks are just as important for remote teams as they are for face-to-face teams, and collectively intelligent teams are able to coordinate in these ways regardless of where they are working.
In addition, we observed that who is doing the work has a significant influence on a group’s collective intelligence — not only whether they had skills relevant to the tasks, but also their social skills, especially their social perceptiveness. Groups whose members are more socially perceptive pick up on all kinds of subtle nonverbal cues, and we observed that they are also able to coordinate more effectively in the ways we have described — even when working remotely.
Many leaders worry that their organizations cannot be as effective when employees work remotely, fearing risks to relationship building or effective collaboration.