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Making Distributed Teams Work: Imitation, Trust, and Control
This is my site Written by Thomas Tøth on April 3, 2015 – 2:33 PM

My article below has recently been published in an eBook on the topic of ‘How to Manage People in Your Remote Team’ in a series of eBooks called ‘The Art of Managing Remote Teams’. The full book is available at Amazon.com.

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Making Distributed Teams Work: Imitation, Trust, and Control

In traditional, co-located work environments, we easily become familiar with one another: We eat lunches together, gather for social activities after work, and share personal details about our families, interests, vacations, and more. Over time, we establish interpersonal relationships that transcend our professional collaborations. This is usually not the case with distributed teams.

Interpersonal Relationships Are Important in Distributed Teams

Interpersonal relations are tremendously helpful when engaging in problem solving. My research within global software development clearly shows that distributed teams that have succeeded in building rapport across locations perceive the cross-locational collaboration as more efficient, effective and flexible, than teams where this is not the case.

Relationships are also important because lack of relationship building often result in negative relations where the team members produce negative perceptions of the remote colleagues. This has a negative influence on the collaboration in distributed teams. In the process of establishing interpersonal relationships, we learn many things about one another that otherwise may not be easily and explicitly communicated. Michael Polanyi (1962) coined the term tacit knowledge more than fifty years ago to describe this process.

Difference between Co-Located and Distributed Teams: Passive Face Time

While working in a co-located environment, we tend to imbibe a lot of contextual information. We know who is present and when each team member arrived, we gain insights into our colleagues’ moods, and we easily recognize when they are stressed out, overworked, and so on. All this happens automatically and unconsciously; all we have to do is be present. Within the field of research, this concept of “just being around” is customarily referred to as passive face time (Elsbach et. al., 2010).

In a research paper published in 2010, Kimberly Elsbach and her colleagues concluded that, by ‘just being around’, we tend to draw positive conclusions spontaneously and unconsciously regarding the characters of our colleagues. We assign personal traits such as reliability, dedication, and accountability merely based on co-presence.

In contrast, in distributed teams – characterized by lack of physical proximity, and thus, a lack of passive face time – we tend to evaluate the remote team members more negatively than we do our co-located colleagues. Hence, distance causes spontaneous and unconscious negative evaluations of remote colleagues.

My own doctoral research on collaboration within the field of global software development clearly suggests that when a group of stakeholders repeatedly experience what they perceive as unsatisfactory performance – such as missed deadlines – or irrational methods from remote colleagues, they react by ‘inventing’ plausible explanations to explain why ‘the others’ acted as they did. Such invented explanations fall into two categories: lack of ability and lack of commitment.

In summary, we tend to evaluate the character of co-located colleagues positively and remote colleagues negatively, clearly demonstrating that passive face time has a significant impact on collaboration.

Fact or Fiction: It Is Vital to Meet in Person to Know Each Other?

In quite a few research interviews I have enquired about the value of meeting face to face occasionally, when working in global teams. Mostly, the answer is that “it is important to get to know one another”. Typically, the respondents elaborate that they:

  • Gain insights into their remote colleagues’ work processes and patterns of thinking
  • Learn how to communicate more effectively
  • Discover something about each other’s strengths and weaknesses when they attend meet-and-greets’
  • Obtain a greater understanding of the hierarchies and power distributions in the remote location
  • Acquire contextual knowledge i.e., they obtain basic information such as the appearance of the office, quality of the technical infrastructure, and challenges related to transportation to and from the office

Some may argue that meeting face to face is hardly necessary for getting to know someone. After all, you could gain an understanding of all the factors above via mediated communication. However, establishing relations without physical proximity is difficult for a number of reasons:

  1. Contextual Knowledge: Everything that we learn automatically when we are co-located becomes more difficult to pick up when we are working across distances (see above). Because the contextual knowledge is tacit (Polanyi, 1962), we never consider explicitly telling our colleagues these things – or asking them for that matter.
  2. Lack of Non-Verbal Cues: Nonverbal cues are predominantly nonexistent. Daft & Lengel addressed this 30 years ago when they coined the term ‘media richness’ (Daft & Lengel, 1984) and concluded that the ease of communication suffers when we use asynchronous media that does not reveal body language – and adding to this complexity, the risk of misinterpretations increase.
  3. Social Factors: Finally, there is a social aspect. Based on many years of psychological studies Kiesler & Cummings (2002) concluded that team members’ wellbeing and performances are higher when they interact face to face with each other. Therefore, merely being in physical proximity has a positive impact on social interaction.

In conclusion, many viable reasons exist for my respondents’ answers that “That’s just the way it is” when asked why it is important to meet face to face to get to know each other. However, does that mean that we cannot establish good interpersonal relationships without physical proximity?

Trust: The Foundation for Cultivating Relations

My own ethnographic field studies confirm that the foundation for establishing good relations is a certain level of trust between the parties. As such, my research is aligned with a wide range of academic resources that analyze virtual collaboration and distributed teams. In other words, if the parties do not trust each other, they cannot develop and maintain a positive and fruitful relationship.

In co-located teams social interactions usually occur automatically. Over time, trust develops and relationships are established. This is not the case in distributed teams though. Social interaction does not happen automatically, as we usually seek to minimize interaction in distributed teams. As Herb Clark (1996) suggested we apply the least collaborative effort and due to distance and lack of nonverbal cues we are not animated to engage further with each other.

In distributed teams we tend to be more straightforward. We minimize socialization, avoid personal enquiries regarding one another’s wellbeing, and refrain from engaging in small talk about weather, family, weekend activities, vacation plans, and so on.

Thus, collaboration in distributed teams is usually characterized by an absence of trust and interpersonal relations. Consequently, as Kreijns (2004) rightly argues, to improve collaboration among distributed teams social interaction must be designed. Hence, it is imperative that the manager places focus on establishing interpersonal trust among distributed team members.

What Is Trust?

How can you, as a manager, actively promote a trusting environment among distributed teams? The first step is to understand what trust is. Within academia trust is customarily divided into two high-level categories: cognition-based trust and affect-based trust (Möllering, 2006). In this chapter I focus solely on cognition-based trust, as affect-based trust is developed over time and builds upon a foundation of cognition-based trust, meaning that cognition-based trust is the starting point for developing interpersonal trust.

Cognition-based trust is founded upon the evaluation of another individual’s ability and integrity. That is: is the person able to do as expected and can we trust that the person will do as he or she says? Both of these parameters are evaluated based on previous experiences with the same individual in similar situations.

If the trust that has been placed in another individual has been honored, cognition-based trust becomes more abstract over time. It can then be applied in new situations that resemble previous experiences in which trust has been honored.

Additionally, it is important to note that trust can only exist when it entails some level of risk. Therefore, if no consequences result from breaches in trust we cannot label it as ‘trust’. The level of trust that is necessary in a specific situation is proportional to the risk entailed. For example, the trust required to lend $10 to an acquaintance is fundamentally different from the level of trust required to lend the same person $10,000.

How Do We Establish Trustful Relations in Practice?

Since we can only talk about trust in a meaningful way if something is at stake, it becomes apparent that we need to take an incremental approach to building trust.

A challenge that I have repeatedly experienced within the IT industry is that managers expect a high level of trust from the very outset of distributed team collaboration. They are eager to get everything up and running instantaneously. However, their lack of patience inevitably leads to dysfunctional teams, and it is inherently difficult to repair a dysfunctional team.

Therefore, it is important to start slowly; it takes time to establish trust! If the risk is too great in the early stages of collaboration it can have a significant, long-lasting, negative impact on the collaboration.

As a manager, you are responsible for the success of long-term collaboration. By ensuring that team members can start their cross-locational collaboration without feeling a sense of imminent risk, you will pave the way for a much smoother and trusting collaboration in the long run. You must ensure that team members are eased into working in distributed teams. Cross-locational dependency among tasks must be proportional to the trust that team members have for their remote colleagues’ willingness and abilities to solve their part of the task. Gradually, higher interdependency can be introduced as trust begins to blossom.

Another vital aspect in getting off to a good start with regard to distributed collaboration is ensuring that each team member’s role and expected contribution is made visible. Research shows that well-defined, recognizable roles can enable trust-based interaction over a shorter period of time (Möllering, 2006).

By explicitly stating the reason why every team member has been brought onboard the manager paves the way for swift trust: a form of trust that is disconnected from actual knowledge about the trustee and instead based on referral. Swift trust is “a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations” (Meyerson et. al., 1996; 197) in which the temporary trust being established is based on well-known categories. For example, we tend to trust doctors and what they say, merely because they are doctors, without any knowledge of that particular doctor.

Imitating Co-Location

As mentioned above, one of the most significant differences between working in a co-located team and a distributed team is the absence of passive face time in the distributed team. However, there are ways to compensate. Let me present a few examples that I have found effective:

  1. Say ‘Hi’ to Your Virtual Colleagues Everyday Via Chat. Similar to what happens as you walk through a physical office space, when you greet virtual colleagues on chat, conversations will most often be kept at a short “Hi, how are you?” However, this little gesture can sometimes serve as a reminder of a work-related issue that you actually need to discuss. And sometimes, just as it is in co-located teams, the greeting will lead to a brief chat about something more related to the personal sphere (i.e. “how was your weekend”, “how is the weather” etc.)
  2. Keep the Webcam on for an Entire Day. Doing this enables you to keep visual contact – just as if you were sitting in a shared office. Furthermore, it diminishes the “mental distance” when questions pops up; and it puts a face to your remote colleague who becomes a human of flesh and blood. A trick to this is to move the camera a bit away to avoid it being too much of an “in your face” experience.
  3. Schedule 3-hour Slots for ‘Open Chat’ Meetings. The idea is not to have wall-to-wall agenda, nor to talk or write together for a full three hours. On the contrary, the idea is to signal availability; to say that it is all right to make contact when needed and that this is not considered a nuisance or a disturbance. This practice is especially useful when inducting new people into a team and in the very beginning of collaboration – especially when one is the expert and one is a newcomer.

An obvious challenge when imitating co-location is that it may seem artificial and strange. However, in my experience, this is only true in the very beginning. Over time – and typically within a few days – it becomes normal; a natural, relaxed and productive way of working together.

Some of the practices mentioned above may not work for your particular team. However, I highly recommend that you experiment until you come up with solutions that fit your team.

Using Control Mechanisms to Make Invisible Work Visible

One of the most significant challenges of working in distributed teams is that only the output produced by remote team-members is visible to us. We have very limited insights into the work process and we are usually left clueless when it comes to whether our remote colleagues are buried in work or if they are having two-hour coffee breaks every day. As Rosen et al. (2007) rhetorically ask: “Does a failure to make a promised entry in the team’s web archive mean that a teammate is struggling with a complex issue, under pressure from on-site management to make other issues a priority, or just slacking off?” Consequently, we need to adapt the way we customarily work.

In my native country of Denmark, we take great pride in employee autonomy. We proudly convey that we trust our subordinates to be proactive, independent, and diligent – and micromanagement is kept to at a minimal level. Danish organizations may be more radical than most other companies are in this sense. Nevertheless, I suspect higher levels of trust and lower levels of control apply to most Western countries when compared to those in Asia.

However, in distributed teams, lack of control is detrimental – not only because we engage with colleagues who are accustomed to higher levels of control, but also because a low level of control contributes negatively to transparency on remote colleagues’ ability, productivity and engagement.

Arguably, distributed teams are challenged by the lack of natural interaction. Relationships characterized by a high level of mutual trust are, by default, scarce due to a lack of passive face time. Consequently, we need to work proactively to make invisible work more visible – and control mechanisms do the job, because they provide the much needed transparency!

We customarily think of control as being the opposite of trust. However, control mechanisms can both substitute trust and be a catalyst for it. For example, a remote team could deliver a weekly status report that clearly exhibits what they spent their time doing during the previous week. This report provides insights that can compensate for the lack of physical proximity and over time (insofar the report display a reasonable use of time) it is a trust-catalyst as it proves remote team-members trustworthy. Over time the report will become obsolete exactly because it has helped build the necessary level of trust.

Now, do not misunderstand me! I am not suggesting a strict control regime, but rather an intelligent and reflected approach to providing visibility and transparency in distributed teamwork. It is indeed control. It may be considered offensive and “not our way of collaborating”. But if we strive for success in distributed teams work we need to be able to adapt the way we work to this new reality.

To establish trust between team-members in distributed teams, we need to:

  1. Start slow. Increase risk over time to get off to a good start.
  2. Use role descriptions and introduce every single team-member: Why is he here and what is he expected to contribute with?
  3. Imitate the work life of a co-located team
  4. Use control mechanisms to make the ‘invisible work’ visible. Controls are necessary in distributed teams.

References

  • Clark, H.H. (1996). Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Daft, R.L.; Lengel, R.H. (1984). Information richness – a new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. Research in organizational behavior 6: 191–233.
  • Elsbach, K. D., Cable, D. M., & Sherman, J. W. (2010). How passive “face time” affects perceptions of employees: Evidence of spontaneous trait inference. Human Relations, 63(6), 735-760.
  • Kiesler, S., J.N. Cummings. (2002). What Do We Know about Proximity and Distance in Work Groups: A Legacy of Research. P. Hinds, S. Kiesler, eds. Distributed Work. MITPress.
  • Kreijns, K. (2004). Sociable CSCL environments. Social affordances, sociability, and social presence.
  • Meyerson, D., Weick, K. E., & Kramer, R. M. (1996). Swift trust and temporary groups. In Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Möllering, G. (2006). Trust: Reason, routine, reflexivity. Emerald Group Publishing,
  • Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-critical Philosophy. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Rosen, B., Furst, S., & Blackburn, R. (2007). Overcoming barriers to knowledge sharing in virtual teams. Organizational Dynamics, 36(3), 259-273.

One Response »

  1. Great article which is very much consistent with my own experiences during the last 15 years.

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