Intersection of Physical Proximity and Effective Teaming

In her article on Merissa Mayer’s recent call for Yahooligans to return from work-at-home to the office, Esther Dyson says:

It’s important to be physically present, so important that she will bring her son to work. Almost precisely because it’s easy to work remotely, the advantage a company has over a collection of home workers – or a set of outsourced workers assembled through Task Rabbit – is that people can accomplish more when they work together, with a common culture and the benefit of serendipitous connections.

Businesspeople in MeetingI agree that teams are more effective when they effectively communicate. What does physical proximity have to do with this? Probably a great deal. We are, after all, a tribal species. Gathering together, eating together, bumping into each other, sharing the funny as well as the sad moments of our lives, are all significant components in feeling as though we can trust each other, and communicate openly and productively. We rely on non-verbal cues to determine how and when to best approach another with an idea, a request, or a concern. We learn those signals by being around others on a regular basis.

Can technologies provide adequate channels of relationship development to substitute for having to be “in the office” at all times, with everybody? Well, here we need to differentiate a bit; because not all relationships require the same level of interaction. For instance, a customer service representative or inbound telesales person – who would not normally come into direct contact with the customer, anyway – would not necessarily benefit from working a shift in a cubicle adjacent to a hundred other such employees, any more than by working from the kitchen table or the neighborhood Starbucks.

But, excluding those kinds of tele-roles, employees who need to collaborate on projects will absolutely benefit from the higher-bandwidth communication that face-to-face (F2F) interaction allows.

Some companies have used technology to help offset the gap between F2F and virtual interaction, particularly when F2F was prohibitive due to costs of distance (and evenTwo Men Talking in Restaurant real estate). During one of my tenures at IBM in the late 2000s, office spaces were intentionally down-sized to the point where all of the employees assigned to a branch office would not have even been able to sit throughout the generic workstations installed in the minimalist space, all at one time. A declared intent of this move (besides reducing real estate costs) was to encourage employees to be in proximity to their customers more frequently, which would (according to this same theory) result in more trusting, more collaborative relationships with customers, too. And, employees found that the flexibility facilitated greater work-life integration. I recall several occasions of debriefing a colleague on project status, while she was taking in her son’s recreational (but competitive) baseball games; did her son, who was focused on the game and chatting with teammates, think any less of his Mom as she chatted with me on her BlackBerry? Probably not.

Teleconference systems (even cheap ones like Skype), mobile phones and devices, email, IM/chat/twitter/social sites, and a slew of other tools help fill that gap. And, certainly, the benefits of not commuting – as well as the benefits of not being distracted by office politics – also offset the value of being “in the office,” all the time. It will be interesting to see if this first oh-so-public backlash against the WFH (working from home) trend will blossom into a full-blown retrenchment into the hallowed halls of the venerable office, or if it’s an outlier without a tail.

But, for sure, enhancing communications among collaborative teams is a basic tenet of effectiveness. Providing folks with insight into their strengths, and the vocabulary to negotiate positioning those strengths to support the team in reaching its goals, will always be successful strategies – whether F2F or WFH, or some blend of both.

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