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What kind of team works together most effectively? The kind that keeps some distance — between one member and the rest of the team. So suggests a new study on geographically dispersed teams, which finds that it is beneficial for a group to include one member who is at a different location. That “isolate” prompts the group to be more disciplined in its coordination and communication — yielding a better and more productive experience for all members.
In “Subgroups, Imbalance and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams,” a forthcoming article in Organization Science, two researchers examine how the configuration of a distributed team affects its dynamics — and ultimately the quality of its output. Are teams with a core group at headquarters and a small, stellar cluster of experts — say at a research and development facility, a client site or a fabrication plant — capable of forming themselves into a constellation of bright ideas? Or do such groups burst apart like supernovas, leaving each subgroup feeling underappreciated, misunderstood and not closely linked to the team’s endeavor?
It’s a timely question, given that such nontraditional teams are becoming ever more common as corporations cut down on real estate costs, offer employees flexibility and tap into expertise from anywhere and everywhere. “It turns out that configuration does have a significant impact,” notes Michael Boyer O’Leary, assistant professor in the department of organization studies at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “But not exactly in the ways we expected.” O’Leary coauthored the study with Mark Mortensen, the Richard S. Leghorn Career Development Professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The findings “can be acted upon by managers when they design their teams,” notes Mortensen. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice. You have to create a team with the people you have. But where you can make choices, don’t just think in terms of individual members — think about their configuration.”
Specifically, in a study of 62 six-person teams, Mortensen and O’Leary found that including one member who is physically isolated from the rest has the positive effect of stimulating the entire team to behave better. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the isolate, teams in their study used that remote individual as a stimulus to exercise more control over how and when the team members communicated — scheduling the next conference call, for instance, before the current one is over. “We expected isolates might have a mild negative effect or be politely excluded because it’s too much of a hassle to include ‘Joe from Washington, D.C.,’ or ‘that colleague from New York,’ ” explains O’Leary. “But actually the teams tended to be more conscious about including that person.” In fact, such teams tended to coordinate more effectively than teams whose members were all at the same location.
The two academics, both of whom have previously studied various aspects of geographically distributed work, grew interested in the impact configuration would have on a group’s performance after examining the existing literature, which measured group effectiveness against such variables as geographic distance (which leads to less effective communication), time-zone differences (which create coordination challenges), and sociodemo-graphic cultural diversity (which often sparks conflict). The existing research on configurations focused on balanced group setups, where each site in a geographically dispersed team has the same number of members. In practice, according to Mortensen and O’Leary, imbalanced teams, where members are distributed unevenly across sites, represent at least 60% of all distributed teams. At what point, the authors wanted to know, does a configuration cause power struggles to flare up, creating an unhealthy us-versus-them dynamic that hinders a team’s coordination and exacerbates the level of conflict inside it?
As it turns out, imbalance often breeds instability. “If you have two different-sized subgroups, that starts to trigger negative dynamics that are worse for the subgroup that is in the numerical minority,” says O’Leary. “They perceive more conflict with the rest of the team, don’t perceive that their contributions are being taken into account, don’t understand other team members’ expertise and don’t identify strongly with the team as a whole.”
But having the most severe imbalance — an isolate in one locale, and the rest of the team based elsewhere — doesn’t inflame antagonism and instead leads to positive behavior. The study’s findings indicate that having one long-distance teammate produces a certain “novelty effect,” with the other members enthusiastic about getting to know, for instance, a colleague who is based in another country. Perhaps more importantly, “We think the teams were operating under the assumption that that one person wouldn’t be a threat to the rest of the team,” says O’Leary. The absence of any such peril enabled the group to accommodate the distant member more effectively and appreciate “the uniqueness of an isolate’s perspective and potential contribution,” says Mortensen.
But turn that isolate into a pair — by adding a coworker at the same remote location — and the team suffers. The two satellite members begin to think of themselves as an orbiting “in-group,” the ones who really understand what is going on, not like “those guys at headquarters.” “The two coworkers in the office will bond with each other, but they won’t bond with the rest of the team,” says O’Leary.
To conduct the study, in 2004 and 2005 Mortensen and O’Leary divided 378 students at two universities in different locations (one in the United States, the other in Canada) into 62 teams of six members apiece. Each of the 62 teams fell into one of four configurations: six members, all in one of the two locations; five members in one location and one in the other; four in one location and two in the other; or three team members in each location. The researchers assigned the teams to a monthlong project requiring them to conduct a comparative analysis of two companies and produce a single written report, combining both publicly available information and information they obtained through personal interviews. Over the four-week period, team members completed two Web-based surveys but only knew that the researchers were studying an aspect of distribution. Many of the students thought the researchers were studying gender-balance issues or language differences. “They didn’t know exactly why we were interested in how the teams were doing,” says O’Leary.
The worst-performing configuration turned out to be teams in which two of the six members worked at the same remote location. As a whole, such groups had difficulties ranging from paying inadequate attention to one another to poorly organizing meetings. The teams with single isolates performed even better than groups that were all in the same location — the configuration that yielded the second-best outcome.
The study should help managers by encouraging them to pay attention to the configuration of any team they set up. “If they have a team that is imbalanced, knowing that imbalance has a tendency to lead to negative outcomes should cause team leaders to be sensitive to including small subgroups and work to help them identify with the broader mission of the team,” says O’Leary. “Team leaders can do powerful but subtle things, emphasizing their interdependence, common goal, and that they will all be evaluated as a team. It helps to remind them that they are all in the same boat.” Managers can also be aware of the potential benefits of geographic isolates and ensure that their teams take advantage of that potential by emphasizing a common purpose, shared goals and the need to embrace the isolate’s unique contributions.
While Mortensen and O’Leary’s conclusions may change the way corporate managers think about teams, the coauthors are sticking to the structure they have used throughout the study: The two are physically separated but meet face to face once in a while. “We aren’t really two different teams, since we are just a pair,” says O’Leary. “From what we know so far, the dynamics don’t start to get complicated until there are three of us.” They intend to follow up on this study with a series of others, including an in-depth examination of the role and impact of isolates and an exploration of more complex configurations in technology, professional service and other companies.