MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

The odd man out may make for a better team

Understanding dispersed team dynamics is a timely consideration, as non-traditional teams are becoming more and more commonplace. Corporations are cutting down on real estate costs, offering employees more flexible work models, and investing in expertise located anywhere and everywhere around the world, resulting in geographically dispersed collaborations. While collocated teams (every team member working on the same site) may have the advantage over dispersed teams in many respects, studies show that more thoughtful configuration of dispersed teams may actually give them the upper hand.

“Within dispersed teams, there is first and foremost a mutual knowledge problem,” says JoAnne Yates, Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management, who teaches in the new, upcoming MIT Sloan Executive Education program, Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age. “When you’re collocated in the same building, you are aware of what your team members know and do not know. And you understand context. When working across distances, this is not necessarily true, and there are all kinds of failures that can come from that. You may not, for example, understand delays in communication. When you don’t get a response right away and you’re expecting one, you make all kinds of assumptions, and most are disparaging about the other party. Then perhaps you find out there was a holiday—like Patriot’s Day, which occurs only in Massachusetts. It’s important to have ways of understanding the specific context your colleagues are working in and of establishing trust and common ground.”

Yates also reminds us that distributed work is not a new phenomenon. An old and famous example is the Hudson Bay Company, the longest continually operating company in North America. From its founding until its 300th anniversary in 1970, the Company’s headquarters were in London, while its fur trading posts and 99% of its employees were thousands of miles away. Yates, her Sloan colleague Wanda Orlikowski, and former PhD student Michael O’Leary have extensively studied this successful, centuries-old company, mining the case study for examples of socialization, communication, and participation practices that enabled globally dispersed staff to maintain the company’s success—long before email, conference calls, screen sharing, and other forms of mediated communication were available. Yates, who is well known for her studies on the use of information technologies at work, makes it clear that technology is not always the solution.

Using geographic dispersion as an asset

Studies of geographically distributed teams—and there are many—report significant conflict between distant members as team members struggle to come to terms with different perspectives, unshared information, and tensions between distant subgroups. Like Yates, former student Michael O’Leary, now a professor at Georgetown University’s Business School, studies group dynamics in geographically distributed teams and the effects of technology on interpersonal interaction.

In “Go (Con)figure: Subgroups, Imbalance, and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams,” published in Organization Science and summarized in this MIT Sloan Management Review (SMR) article, O’Leary and co-author Mark Mortensen from INSEAD reveal the effects of configuration using a sample of six-person teams in four different one- and two-site configurations, found that distributed teams in this study experienced more site-based subgroup conflict than collocated teams. Some forms of dispersion, however, may be an asset, especially when a group of team members are located at one site and one person is located elsewhere. “While being the lone person off-site can be deadly,” comments Yates, “sometimes the novelty factor of this remote colleague encourages people to take extra care to make it work.” O’Leary and Mortensen establish their surprising finding that having one member in a remote location helped their teams communicate.

“The ‘isolate’ prompts the group to be more disciplined in its coordination and communication—yielding a better and more productive experience for all team members,” they write. 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 communicated.

While imbalance breeds instability among differently-sized teams (with the smaller group generally feeling minimized), it turns out that the most imbalanced configuration, with only one team member working off-site, doesn’t inflame site-based antagonism but instead may lead to surprisingly positive behavior. The “novelty effect” creates curiosity about that person, and they are unlikely to be viewed as a threat. In their study, those teams with one remote isolate actually performed better than collocated teams. However, turn that isolate into a pair, and suddenly the team suffers. The two satellite workers readily create a bond that establishes an us-versus-them dynamic. They perceive more conflict with the team, don’t perceive their contributions being taken into account, don’t understand the other team members’ expertise, and don’t identify with the team as a whole.

 “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,” advises O’Leary. 

JoAnne Yates is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and a Professor of Managerial Communication and Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She teaches in the upcoming MIT Executive Education program, Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age, offered October 27-28