In today's rapidly changing work landscape, remote teams have become the norm rather than the exception. However, managing the flow of communication among remote team members can be challenging; and there are concerns about whether remote work stifles innovation and productivity. This article explores the impact of bursty communication, information diversity, and physiological synchrony in unlocking the performance of remote teams.
The Rise of Remote Work and its Challenges
The number of organizations using offshore and fully distributed scrum teams to deliver high quality products continues to increase. With the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic, the shift to remote work has accelerated, forcing organizations to adapt to new ways of collaborating.
However, as many teams have learned, managing communication among remote team members presents unique challenges. For years, scrum practitioners assumed team member co-location was essential to success; with the scrum events designed around this assumption.
Practical application of the scrum framework with remote teams is something many of us have struggled with, working across time zones, and leveraging technology to simulate the communication styles of co-located teams. More and more, we are discovering that remote teams can be highly successful in leveraging the scrum framework to deliver valuable products and services, without trying to create constant communications between team members.
Bursty Communication: An Important Aspect to Team Success
Contrary to the prevailing belief that remote teams struggle to achieve the productivity of more traditional co-located teams, recent research suggests that it is not distance per se that limits remote teams. An article published in the Harvard Business Review in 2020 by Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley reveals that remote teams who communicate in bursts, exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity, perform much better than those with long lag times between responses and scattered conversations across multiple topics. Bursty communication is characterized by rapid-fire exchanges followed by longer periods of silence.
The study involved 260 software workers from 50 different countries, divided into 52 teams of five, all tasked with developing an algorithm for a medical kit on a space flight. The teams were randomly assigned and offered cash prizes as incentives. Surprisingly, the incentives did not improve the quality of the work. What did lead to better outcomes was the bursty communication style exhibited by some teams.
The Benefits of Bursty Communication
The research results discovered the strong correlation between those bursts of rapid communication and the following longer periods of silence, as one of the telltale signs of high performing teams. In these results which many find counter-intuitive, researchers discovered that constant communication is not necessarily the most effective approach, as it can easily lead to information overload. Instead, bursts of activity followed by focused work time led to improved collaboration and productivity.
Bursty communication allows team members to quickly exchange ideas and receive immediate feedback, facilitating the development of innovative solutions. During rapid bursts of communication, team members can provide input necessary for their work and collaborate effectively. The subsequent periods of silence provide focused work time for team members to act upon the ideas exchanged.
Implementing Bursty Communication in Remote Teams
To foster bursty communication in remote teams, it is important to establish a communication style that aligns with the normal patterns of in-person conversations. Remote teams using the bursty style of communication can include email, texting, and messaging apps in their communication technology. Instead of treating these methods of communication as purely asynchronous, team members should align their work routines and communicate in short bursts when everyone can respond rapidly and attentively.
Being flexible in finding common times, even if it means early or late work hours, can help create bursty communication opportunities. Teams can facilitate bursty communication by scheduling blocks of time when team members are available for rapid back-and-forth exchanges. Technology can also play a role in facilitating bursty communication by allowing team members to signal their availability and tracking activity patterns to identify optimal times for collaboration.
The Role of Information Diversity
In addition to bursty communication, information diversity plays a crucial role in effective communication within remote teams. The exchange of diverse information within a team leads to improved performance. Each piece of communication should focus on a small set of topics, as this creates more information diversity across messages. Sending separate messages for different topics, rather than one long email covering multiple topics, helps to declutter communications and allows for more focused discussions.
However, there is a tradeoff between bursty communication and information diversity. Bursty communication is most effective when combined with focused discussions on specific topics. In such cases, small chunks of information lead to more in-depth exchanges and better collaboration. Balancing bursty communication and information diversity is key to optimizing remote team performance.
The Importance of Physiological Synchrony
In addition to bursty communication and information diversity, physiological synchrony plays a role in effective remote team communication. Physiological synchrony refers to the harmonization of non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and vocal synchrony, that enhance collaboration and collective intelligence. In traditional in-person meetings, visual and vocal synchrony work together to facilitate effective communication and shared understanding.
One characteristic of a high performing team is that team members contribute equally to the conversations. To encourage this, video conferencing tools are often used to create the same collaboration and collective intelligence with remote team members; with some teams mandating a "cameras always on" working agreement.
However, in a surprising finding, researchers found that video conferencing can sometimes disrupt these non-verbal cues and reduce equality in speaking time. Audio-only calls, on the other hand, can increase equality in speaking time, leading to improved collective intelligence. Task-focused conversations are generally better conducted through audio, with participants focusing on shared documents or whiteboards.
Visual cues are still valuable in conversations involving emotional nuance though, so it is important to distinguish when to use audio calls versus when to use video calls. When the conversation is more task focused, prioritize audio. When the conversation is more collaborative, such as in planning or daily scrum meetings, the facial cues available on video streaming can deepen collaboration and shared understanding. Tailoring the balance of audio and video communication can help remote teams boost their performance.
Strategies for Remote Team Success
To unlock the performance of remote teams, team members should focus on implementing bursty communication, fostering information diversity, and considering the role of physiological synchrony. Aligning work routines, providing opportunities for rapid exchanges, and ensuring focused work time will help foster bursty communication. ScrumMasters and team members should also promote the exchange of diverse information by encouraging focused discussions on specific topics. Additionally, considering the role of physiological synchrony can help determine the most effective communication methods, such as prioritizing audio over video for task-focused conversations.
Technology can play a significant role in promoting these strategies. To facilitate bursty communication, calendar tools can help team members identify each other's availability, while tracking activity patterns can reveal optimal times for collaboration. Chat tools such that allow multiple topic-based channels can help support information diversity. And, of course, the good old-fashioned telephone, along with a good video conferencing tool can aid physiological.
Remote teams have become an integral part of the modern workforce, and their success depends on effective communication. By implementing bursty communication, fostering information diversity, and considering the role of physiological synchrony, organizations can promote collaboration, innovation, and productivity among remote teams. With the right strategies and tools, remote teams can thrive in the new normal of remote work.
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