Gossip, Collaboration, and Performance in Distributed Teams


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What do you think the typical manager might say if you told them their employees don’t gossip and engage one another enough in social interaction at work? 

Most managers know about the water cooler effect. However, not enough understand the meaning of the concept and how it relates to performance and collaboration.  People thinking about how to support collaboration and performance need to keep in mind the simple fact that employees don’t only gather around the water cooler or coffee pot to get a drink. They often use getting a drink of water, or a cup of coffee, as a pretext for taking a break, and information sharing happens incidentally as they interact in that informal process, sometimes playfully, with their peers and, in exceptional organizations, their managers. 

A couple of studies released this summer dealing with performance and collaboration in teams merit consideration in this regard. Not so much for what they specifically say about performance and collaboration as much as what they imply about the importance of social relationships to both. 

The consulting firm RW3 recently released a study of distributed teams, reporting that “40 percent of members on virtual teams believe their groups are underperforming”. We previously discussed such distributed teams, noting that team members often disagree with team leaders about who is, and is not, on the team. Michael Schell, CEO for RW3, noted in Chief Learning Officer magazine that, of the teams studied, “Half of these teams never meet in person…They don’t get time to create any kind of rapport, which is very important when you’re working across cultures.” 

While the RW3 research points to a salient issue in distributed teams, it fails to acknowledge that merely recognizing and talking about the impact of cultural variation on performance and collaboration, whether in informal online meetings or in training, fails to address the main issue. Members of distributed teams perform more effectively when they understand one another as people as well as employees. Specifically, 

Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people. 

Merely orchestrating virtual water cooler meetings on a regular basis does not address the issue, especially when management coordinates the meetings. As I observed in a previous post on the importance of empathy and collaboration to social business design

People who identify with one another are more likely to share information proactively, without waiting for others to ask for it, because they understand how their own work relates to that of other people and see the flow of work from multiple points of view, spanning silos. Too many social computing experts view collaboration from within a command and control prism, assuming people collaborate because coordination and communication are part of their job description. 

Effective collaboration really requires proactively sharing information with those it affects, not simply reacting to information requests. It means anticipating the future impact of actions you take on the responsibilities of other employees or business partners, or the needs of customers. People really don’t do this well unless they see other employees, and customers, as people too. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons that social networks increase in importance as collaboration decreases as a face to face activity. 

Recent research on collaboration, performance, and job satisfaction in co-located teams provides useful findings to consider in thinking about what social networks add to the mix in distributed teams. 

 On the Importance of Gossip to Performance

 Benjamin W. Waber and Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the MIT Media Lab recently used RFID and Bluetooth tracking devices engineered as sociometric badges to study the patterns of communication among employees at two different companies. 

The first company was an IT services firm. Following the patterns of communication among employees evidenced by the sociometric badge data, the researchers concluded that ”social support in the form of cohesion (how much time do the people you talk to spend with each other) was strongly positively associated with productivity.” The badges used in the research are capable of the following:

  • Recognizing common daily human activities (such as sitting, standing, walking, and running) in real time using a 3-axis accelerometer…
  • Extracting speech features in real time to capture nonlinguistic social signals such as interest and excitement, the amount of influence each person has on another in a social interaction, and unconscious back-and-forth interjections, while ignoring the words themselves in order to assuage privacy concerns…
  • Performing indoor user localization by measuring received signal strength and using triangulation algorithms that can achieve position estimation errors as low as 1.5 meters, which also allows for detection of people in close physical proximity…
  • Communicating with Bluetooth enabled cell phones, PDAs, and other devices to study user behavior and detect people in close proximity…
  • Capturing face-to-face interaction time using an IR sensor that can detect when two people wearing badges are facing each other within a 30°-cone and one meter distance… (p. 1)

 The second company was a call center for Bank of America. After a few weeks, the research data indicated that customer service representatives who talked to more co-workers were getting through calls faster, felt less stressed, and had the same approval ratings as their peers. “Informally talking out problems and solutions, it seemed, produced better results than following the employee handbook or obeying managers’ e-mailed instructions.” The MIT research findings shouldn’t surprise us since numerous psychological experiments show that people are reluctant to share uncertain or sensitive information in formal meetings, especially when they think they alone possess it.

As a result of their preliminary findings, Waber and Pentland advised the following organizational intervention, 

One simple intervention is to give workers more opportunities to socialize in groups. Currently we are implementing a strategy at a call center for a national bank chain where we are changing the break structure of the employees. Previously each employee on a team of around 20 people had a separate 15 minute break in order to reduce the need to shift call loads to other teams, although in practice this issue is not terribly important. This makes it very difficult for cohesive relationships to develop, since groups of friends will by design have limited opportunities for shared interactions. 

To create more of these opportunities we changed the break structure of two of the four teams that we had studied previously so that all of the employees on a team are given a break at the exact same time. 

The patterns of social interaction changed dramatically after the intervention, and Bank of America reported productivity gains worth about $15 million a year. 

Source: MIT Media Lab

So, what do these findings indicate about the importance of social networks in collaboration and performance for distributed teams? 

When asked about how the culture of Zappos was affected by its growth, and the acquisition of the company by Amazon, Tony Hsieh responded that managing the change to preserve the social relationships in the Zappos culture was his priority. He noted that the acquisition itself didn’t pose as much of a challenge as Zappos’ own growth. As a result,

…we’ve begun tracking employee relationships. When employees log in to their computers, we ask them to look at a picture of a random employee and then ask them how well they know that person — the options include “say hi in the halls,” “hang out outside of work,” and “we’re going to be longtime friends.” We’re starting to keep track of the number and strength of cross-departmental relationships — and we’re planning a class on the topic. My hope is that we can have more employees who plan to be close friends. 

The key fact behind the Zappos example is that using social networking as part of business design is a way of cultivating shared experience among employees rather than a mere means to an end, or goal, alone. Achieving the latter is in fact, as the research above indicates, increased by cultivating shared experience through social relationships.

No doubt, developing such shared experience among members of distributed teams takes longer than it does when employees meet in the hallway or on breaks. Nevertheless, shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and community. Many, if not most, employees don’t only need to get to know one another through reputational systems, like who tags whom or rates them as possessing expertise. Comfort with one another is needed to develop a shared experience where trust increases the likelihood that needed information is shared, or that the need itself is anticipated. 

This simple fact about people is too often overlooked.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Larry Irons
Larry Irons, PhD, is the Principal of Customer Clues. Customer Clues provides consulting services to design manageable product and service experiences across your marketing, learning, and organizational performance initiatives.


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