Distance may make some teams perform better

Diversity has become a golden standard for organizations, but when members view their co-workers as different from themselves, does this impact the quality of collaboration?

That was the question explored by assistant professor Lionel P. Robert, who in a recent study analyzed 121 teams, interacting face-to-face and remotely, to find that some teams actually worked better when their members were separated by distance. 

Lionel P. Robert

Robert found that when members considered their teammates to be different on surface-level characteristics, such as age, gender and race, they collaborated better when there was both geographical and perceived – or psychological – distance. However, when teammates differed on deep-level characteristics, such as values, attitudes and beliefs, they collaborated better when they were geographically at a distance but perceived that they were close (i.e. psychologically close).

“Geographic dispersion, the physical separation of team members, has been proposed as a way to decrease the negative effects of perceived diversity,” Robert explains in his paper “Far but Near or Near but Far?: The Effects of Perceived Distance on the Relationship between Geographic Dispersion and Perceived Diversity.” “Geographic dispersion also increases a team’s reliance on electronic communications which support more equal and open team discussions. More equality during team discussions should be particularly important to facilitating teamwork when team members believe they are different from one another.” 

Psychology offers an explanation that team members viewed surface-level diversity as a potential threat, which in turn requires both geographic and psychological distancing in order for members to work together effectively. Deep-level diversity, however, was not viewed as a threat by team members in this study, and as a result did not require distancing for members to work together effectively. 

This study proposes that collaborative systems can be designed to promote or reduce feelings of distance among collaborators. “For teams high in perceptions of surface-level diversity, distance can have benefits. In such cases, we should seek to promote, rather than decrease, feelings of distance among collaborators,” Robert said.

To increase distance, Robert proposes introducing intermediary steps within communication systems to prevent direct communication, such as routing messages through a knowledge repository or depersonalizing messages by removing any names or identifiable information. 

Alternatively, systems can be designed to cultivate closeness among team members who are geographically dispersed by the use of video calling and personalized reminders to stay connected with teammates.

“Systems should be designed to allow team members to better manage their interactions,” Robert concludes in his paper, adding that individual interactions can be managed by modifying distance through availability and communication technology.

The paper can be found here.

Posted on March 1, 2016