With the Covid-19 pandemic ongoing, the move to an online workplace has become widespread and may well endure. But, as many organisations are learning, managing the flow of communication among remote teams is tricky.
Our latest research findings have led to insights that can help. They centre on the concepts of burstiness, information diversity, and physiological synchrony, attention to which can foster creativity, streamline processes, reduce the stress of multi-tasking, and improve team performance.
Human communication is naturally “bursty,” in that it involves periods of high activity followed by periods of little to none. Our research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams. Those silent periods are when team members often form and develop their ideas — deep work that may generate the next steps in a project or the solution to a challenge faced by the group. Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move on to the next challenge.
To communicate in a bursty manner, members of a team should avoid thinking of message-based communication, like email and texting, as asynchronous, with everyone simply sending messages to one another whenever they feel like it. Instead, they should align their work routines and then communicate in short periods when everybody can respond rapidly and attentively. That’s the route to higher performance.
To facilitate burstiness, you have to find time when team members can actually focus on individual task work. This can be challenging if they are also managing childcare and home-schooling, or caring for other family members, and may not have access to dedicated workspace. Some teams have managed to find flexibility and common times very early or late in the day. Coordinating this can be complicated and stressful, but figuring out when teams can be bursty together can help smooth out the jagged edges of our Covid-induced remote-work constraints.
How can managers best create environments that foster bursts of activity? The old-fashioned way to do this would be to schedule blocks of time when people are open for meetings, and then do a burst of back and forth communication during those blocks. Newer technology can help facilitate opportunities to synch up with others more organically by allowing people to signal if they are busy or available at different times during the workday. Calendar technology can allow collaborators to see if someone is in a scheduled meeting and thus not available. Other technology makes it possible to track activity patterns in documents or on work-related websites, which can help make clear when people are available for an interruption. Such tracking can allow organisations to identify good times for nudging team members to be more bursty. Additional tools, such as a new one called Minglr, which our team has worked on, can enable ad-hoc video chat that does not require pre-scheduled meetings or the need to send Zoom invitations. Organisations can also focus on defining “deep work” times and then can reserve other time slots for bursty interactions.
Our research has shown that well-coordinated groups fall naturally into these patterns, and that encouraging such behaviours leads to better outcomes than mandating them. For example, if team members recognise that they tend to be more responsive to one another at certain times, it’s best if they start to shift their schedules and focus on their shared work at those times so that they can then iterate quickly on tasks. Managers and teams should work to find new ways to develop awareness for and amplify those cues so that everybody on the team knows when others are available.
The bottom line: Worry less about sparking creativity and connection through watercooler-style interactions in the physical world, and focus more on facilitating bursty communication.
The diversity of information we communicate is critical for effective communication. Diversity in teams also plays an important role, because it facilitates the exchange of a greater diversity of information, which in turn boosts team performance.
Our research suggests that each piece of communication should focus on a small set of topics, because that creates more information diversity across messages. Small chunks of information help focus the mind and declutter communications. Have you ever tried to manage multiple emails from your teammates that span an entire globe of topics? In that situation, it’s dangerously easy to become lost in searching for information, or just to get distracted from what’s actually the most important topic of the moment.
To optimise information diversity, strive to make each message as focused as possible. Instead of sending one long email that covers three topics, for example, send three separate ones. The fewer the number of ideas involved in a given message, the easier it is to go into more depth and have a back-and-forth exchange about each one.
All that said, our work suggests that there’s a tradeoff involved between diversity and burstiness. Information diversity matters most if you aren’t engaged in bursty communication, and vice versa.
Physiological synchrony also matters. Our work suggests, for example, that video conferencing is not always beneficial for effective communication. That might seem counterintuitive, but it turns out that video conferences can disrupt the non-verbal cues that enhance collaboration and collective intelligence.
When we meet and work together in person, visual synchrony — notably, facial expression — commingles with vocal synchrony, which leads to harmonised interpersonal communication. That’s how people know when it’s appropriate to speak without interrupting, or how a group understands it has collectively agreed to a solution.
In our research on remote communication, we’ve found that not having access to visual cues, as is the case in audio-only calls, actually increases equality in speaking time. This positively affects collective intelligence. Adding video to these calls, we found, reduces equality in speaking time — and thus collective intelligence. In many cases, what this means is that audio-only remote meetings can be more effective.
The key point from our findings is simple, if surprising: It’s often a good idea to prioritise audio over video. Task-focused conversations, in particular, are generally better when conducted by audio, with participants simultaneously focusing on a document or a whiteboard that captures and displays their work.
Conversations involving subtle emotional nuance are likely to be different, however. In such situations, visual cues can be very helpful. And there are still times and places for ad-hoc interactions around the virtual watercooler, as long as a smooth and reliable video connection is possible. At these times, teams can synchronise through facial expression and voice to convey such fundamental human qualities as shared attention and empathy.
Our research on effective communication in remote teams started years before the pandemic, and the insights that have emerged from our work will prove useful regardless of when and how we return to the office. Whenever teams are apart physically in work settings, managers should work to develop burstiness, foster information diversity, establish periods of deep work without interruption, and tailor the use of audio and video technologies to meet the needs of particular interactions. Such practices will help drive remote teams’ performance in our emerging new normal.
This article was originally written by Christoph Riedl, an associate professor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, at Northeastern University. His research focuses on collective intelligence, crowdsourcing, and digital business transformation, including the role of AI for the future of work. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.