Why being co-located doesn’t make you a successful team

Why being co-located doesn’t make you a successful team

Stop blaming remote workers and storks for bad virtual team management

The telecommuters of Yahoo! in 2013 and storks, yes the bird, have something in common. Can you guess what?
Let me elaborate a little on this. In 2013 Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! at this time, decided to not further allow teleworking for Yahoo! employees. The email that informed the Yahoo! staff stated:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Marissa Mayer’s hopes were that with the end of the home office, a more connected company culture and an increased productivity would come along.
Mayer’s mistake was to blame remote work in itself as the problem. She focused on going back to the old working style. Instead, she should have focused on virtual team management.

The trap of the co-located collaboration idea

Mayer was partly right. If you want a successful business and a great place to work, communication and collaboration are essential to have.

But no, working together in one office does not make you automatically a team player. Nor does working remotely prevent you from collaborating and communicating with your co-workers.

You can sit side by side and fail in collaboration. Somebody I know used to work in a two-man team. They both sat in the same office, tables side by side. Their collaboration existed in writing each other notes and putting them into the inbox of the other person, which they occasionally emptied every few hours. Instead of writing notes, they could have lifted the head, say two sentences and be done with the topic. But they kept writing each other notes and sometimes needed days to solve one issue.
This might look like an extreme example. But the failure of collaboration in an office setting is not a shocking new idea for any office worker.

On the other hand, who says collaboration does not work online?

What we can learn from the gaming industry

Did you ever play a multiplayer online game like Counter-Strike or World of Warcraft? Members from all over the world come together, form a team, and play against other groups. Communication happens entirely online and is pretty efficient (when also sometimes enriched with occasional swear words). Communication has to be efficient otherwise you or your teammates’ role gets faster killed than you can spell efficiency. And that harms the whole team.

Collaboration is necessary to make the team win. Playing together for hours, days, and months lets the teammates bond. My partner used to play this kind of games and until today (10 years later), he talks about friend A or friend B from the old Counter-Strike days. People he never met in person. And until today he is not saying “somebody I knew”, but “a friend”.

If Marissa Mayer’s thesis was right that we need to be in the same room to be able to collaborate with each other, all the online multiplayer should go back to the 1990s and have fun at LAN-parties.

LAN-parties certainly was fun. But the modern way of sitting in your own chair, in your own home, and play with your friends online proofed to be the more efficient and preferred way by the new generation. So why should that be any different for working teams?

We use social media on a daily basis and stay in close contact with our friends and families.

It is a daily habit to collaborate via social media

The Yahoo! information email mentions that the best decisions and insights come from occasional meetings when you bump into each other and start brainstorming. Yes, that is right! Many people get more creative when they can have unstructured brainstorming in unplanned meetings (others do not, but this is a topic for another blog post). But no, Marissa Mayer is wrong by assuming that you need to be in the same building to “bump” into each other and have a little chat.

Social media lets us bump into random people every day. We have spontaneous chats with people and comment on strangers’ posts and pictures. Modern technology makes it easier than ever to stay in contact with remote co-workers. The only thing you have to do is to ensure your remote employees do have space and time to “bump into each other”.

Virtual team management involves creating opportunities for employees to socialize and build a cohesive team. Open up a “water dispenser” slack channel where everybody can talk about whatever they want to. Do weekly random chats with co-workers (donut is a nice slack feature for that). Or encourage your team to have lunch breaks together. Sit with your bowl of food in front of the screen and chitchat like you would do in your office kitchen. Teams will bond, employees will feel less lonely and the company will gain new ideas.

Blaming the stork for mismanagement

So what does that all have to do with the similarity of telecommuters at Yahoo! and storks? The misunderstanding of correlation and causation.

Correlation and causation are both statistical measures. Correlation expresses a relationship between two variables. This relationship does NOT mean that the change of one variable causes the change of another. On the other hand that is exactly what causation means, the change of one variable causes the change of the other.

A famous correlation is storks and human birth rates. It was found that in areas with a high birth rate a lot of storks were seen. Both variables correlated in that way that if there were fewer storks, there were also fewer birth rates. An incidental correlation between two variables. But nobody of us would assume that the storks are the cause for the rise in babies, isn’t it? But that is exactly the trap that Larissa Mayer fell into.

In 2013 her company was already outdated by many much more successful tech companies. So she checked the productivity sheets of her telecommuters and saw that they are beneath expectation. Mayer recognized a correlation, made a causation out of it and equalled: no more teleworkers = no more underachievers.

The same logic would make her move to an area without storks to prevent pregnancy.

Mismanagement is the cause for unhappy telecommuters

The problem of Yahoo! was not the teleworkers. It was bad virtual team management and the wrong individuals. In 2013, Yahoo! had 12.000 onsite workers and approximately 500 remote-only workers. And Yahoo! treated the teleworkers like any other onsite employee.

But remote employees do need a different kind of support than onsite workers to fully integrate into a team, to bond, collaborate and communicate efficiently. An insider of Yahoo! stated that the remote workers

Instead of thinking that the fact of being a remote worker is the cause for the unproductivity Marissa Mayer should have dig a little deeper. What did Yahoo! do for their teleworkers to be productive? Which support did the virtual team management provide? Did they have team building sessions for remote workers? Or were they just occasionally invited into the office?

Virtual team managers need to be committed to the team

In co-located offices co-workers find the space and time to bond if they want to. May it be at the water cooler, the kitchen, or for a little chitchat from one table to the other. Nobody argues that they are wasting precious time while being outside talking and smoking a cigarette or getting some fresh air.

Remote co-workers on the other hand often have the feeling that they have to concentrate 100% on the work and that there is no time for socializing.

Socializing is an important step to build up trust to co-workers. And people that trust each other work more efficiently together.

When remote co-workers have space and time to socialize they will bond with their colleagues and company. And if you feel close to somebody you are willing to go the extra mile. It is the task of the virtual team management to ensure that remote employees have the opportunity to socialize online.

So what could have Yahoo! done differently?

Instead of blaming their virtual co-workers for not collaborating, management should have supported them by giving them space and time to bond and create a team. Telecommuters have to learn how to collaborate online, how to socialize and trust virtual co-workers and how to have fun working online. And it is part of the virtual team management to ensure the virtual team knows how to.

It does not help to invite remote workers into the office once or twice a year or spend a week at an expensive Bali retreat.
Instead, virtual team management should invest in real online changes, like having regular video calls, online team activities and invest in virtual team building to practice with the team how to work together online. Show your telecommuters that you appreciate them and their work.

An investment in your remote team is worth the money because the company will be rewarded with happy employees, lower turnover rates and possibly an increase in productivity of up to 30-40%! (Building Better Teams (2011) The Harvard Business Review Paperback)

So stop blaming the stork for not bringing enough babies and start supporting your remote workers instead!

Virtual Team Building

Get to know and trust each other with engaging and fun team building exercises. Bond with short daily activities and team events.

Virtual Team Development

In online workshops you bond, engage, solve problems. Topics: team culture, collaboration, trust, communication, and more.

Meeting facilitation

We facilitate engaging and effective online meetings for you, so that you can concentrate on bringing in your ideas in discussions.

Transition & Onboarding

We support you in setting up processes and structures for your remote team and in onboarding your newest virtual team members.

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