Working Remotely? Try ‘Bursty’ Communication.

Author: Casey Gale       

While some organizations have a generous work-from-home policy, other companies like Apple and Google have recently started asking employees to come back into the office to encourage more face-to-face time with colleagues that will, in turn, boost creativity and innovation.

But a recent Behavioral Scientist article suggests that remote work doesn’t stifle innovation — it’s the cadence of communication that teams use, both in and out of the office, that matters most. Authors Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley point to research in the Academy of Management Discoveries journal involving 260 software workers across 50 countries. They were split into 52 groups of five and asked to develop an algorithm that can recommend the contents of a medical kit on a space flight. Half the teams were offered cash incentives — similar to perks like free lunch, that companies like Apple and Google offer employees to work on-site. “It might surprise some employers to learn that while the incentives did spur some activity and effort,” the authors write, “incentives ultimately did nothing to improve the quality of the work.”

What did spark true productivity? “Bursts” of communication, defined as “exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity.” On the flip side, when communication was delayed and spread across multiple channels, “teams suffered, and the quality of their work suffered,” Riedl and Williams Woolley write. “People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”

Ridel and Williams Woolley suggest that the “bursty” method of communication works because it is “a signal that team members attend to and align their activities with one another,” they write. “During rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas,” while the spans of silence in between allow coworkers to get to work on what they’ve discussed. These bursts of activity are particularly helpful if team members are working across different time zones, the authors say. “If a response to a question comes in only after several hours, it may be too late in the day for the recipient to do anything with it.” However, by designing a system that promotes bursts of communication and collaboration, Riedl and Williams Woolley say, “employers can achieve higher quality collaboration in their teams, all while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely.”

Casey Gale is a Convene associate editor.