The Way We Work
August 30, 2012 by Julia Camenisch

When you have team members in different time zones — or even on different continents — it can be difficult to replicate the cohesiveness and water-cooler collaboration that comes naturally for in-person teams. This is particularly the case when a remote team member joins an existing in-person team. Companies that don't actively make an effort to bridge the distance will likely feel its effects; a 2010 University of Michigan study showed that when a team is comprised of on-site members and remote workers, a divide often exists between them. This “proximity effect” can hinder collaboration and undermine unity.

However, as many distributed teams can attest, the innovative use of always-on communication tools is making remote team members feel not so distant anymore. Just talk to Elizabeth Yin, former Googler and founder of LaunchBit.

Yin needed to hire an engineer for her burgeoning startup, but couldn't find the right fit for her team in her immediate vicinity. So she took what felt like a bit of a gamble at the time: she hired a remote team member.

Yin remembers her initial concerns. “I thought that communication would be too tedious over email/IM," she said. "I thought there would be miscommunication galore. I thought it would be harder to keep morale up when you can't see someone or talk with him/her face-to-face.” But she wasn’t to be deterred. “I knew that I had to crack the nut of being able to benefit from choice [of talent], but removing the issues that crop up more easily with remote hires.”

Finding a way to bring remote teams face to face

Enter the hero of this story, Apple’s FaceTime. Yin decided to use the Mac app to give her remote employees an office presence, virtually. “We give every full-time employee an iPad when they join and they whip it out every day. Very simply, we just leave FaceTime on all day. So it's easy to ask a colleague a question, regardless of where they are based. It really feels like you are in the same room.”

Always-on video conferencing was the partial answer — but there were still a few kinks to work out. “One of the pieces of feedback I received from my team was that they thought it was eerie to use video conferencing software on their computers, because the built-in computer-webcams were focused right on their faces," she said. "It felt stalkerish.”

So Yin improvised. She had employees position the iPads off to the side. Not only did this solve the continual “Big Brother watching overhead” vibe, but it also felt more natural. With the new arrangement, employees saw each others’ profiles and felt almost like they were sitting side by side. According to Yin, “this resonated with the team.”

For Yin and other managers in her shoes, building an effective team is about so much more than just finding the right talent. It’s about imparting vision and creating camaraderie so that people want to come in to work every day. As Peter Chester of Tri.be states,”[The] most important part of building an enduring team of remote contractors [is that] great teams are great friends.”

Video conferencing helps build team relationships

In Yin’s experience, always-on communication tools such as FaceTime create that rapport in spite of distance. She says, “Leaving FaceTime on all day has brought our team as a whole closer together. You can see if someone is in the middle of something or just grabbing a snack. This makes it easier to instigate water-cooler conversations at the right time in a way that IM chat can't. This has led to serendipitous brainstorms, much like having everyone on the team in a real office. Or even just a crazy joke to lighten everyone's day.”

As blogger Larry Irons points out, “…shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and community.” When your employees are geographically scattered, creating a strong, connected team takes an extra investment of time and technology. But the payoff is worth it. Using always-on technology allows your team to share stories, deepen relationships and even pass around a bit of gossip. And when this happens, your distributed team becomes more than just a collection of scattered employees — they become a true team.

What have you done to help bring your teams closer together? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.

  • Larry Irons

    Hi Julia,

    Thanks for the mention in your article. The one observation I'd like to share is that early experiments with "always on" videoconferencing technology in the workplace done by Xerox PARC and AT&T (Bell Labs) in the early 1990s made it clear that employees need a feature to opt-out of the videostream so that they can indicate availability to other team members. The early research was reported in Communications of the ACM. Based on the research I've seen it is important to incorporate such "private spaces" into the organization when management implements such systems, especially video-conferencing.

    • Julia Camenisch

      @Larry - That's a good point that I didn't touch on, especially if the remote team member isn't full-time with the company. Thanks for bringing that up.

  • Michael

    Interesting article, but I think it's very heavily biased toward extroverted team members. As an introvert, I like working from home rather than in an office. I like *not* having face to face contact all the time. I'm barely comfortable doing a scheduled video chat, much less so having a video camera constantly on. It doesn't matter if it's in front of me or off to the side.

    That doesn't make me less skilled at what I do, nor less of a team player. I just communicate differently. When it comes to email or IM, I feel right at home. My 5 star rating on oDesk confirms this.

    I think that an effective management strategy has to take into account different communication styles and different needs. Many very creative people are introverts. Don't discriminate them.

    • Julia Camenisch

      Appreciate the perspective from the flip side of the "always on" communication discussion, Michael. I'm curious - do you ever feel left out of team discussions using IM and e-mail only? Or does your team do a good job of keeping you in the loop through those communication channels?