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Breaking down the distance barrier

Steelcase 360

Ask anyone who works with teams remotely and they’ll tell you it’s tough. Teamwork is hard enough when you’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside your co-workers in the same room where you can see, hear and understand what’s happening. But when you’re working remotely, a new set of issues can pop up:

  • Conversations by phone can sound like gibberish as people talk over each other.
  • You’re unable to see the whiteboard if you’re working off site.
  • The phone or video connection is inconsistent, often breaking the conversation flow or worse, completely disconnecting you.
  • You make a comment while on the phone, and then everyone in the room goes silent – have they just forgotten you were there or are they rolling their eyes?

Workplace researchers call this experience “presence disparity.” It essentially means people who are not present in the room with their teammates are at a disadvantage. Not only do you miss things in the meeting, but you also miss the hallway conversations before and after the meeting.

“People who are working remotely have to work a lot harder just to see, hear and be heard,” says Gale Moutrey, vice president, Brand Experience and Workplace Innovation at Steelcase. “Working in person is almost always better, but sometimes it’s just not possible — whether it’s because of where you live, or if you need to work from home or can’t travel. But there are many things we’re learning about how to leverage technology and design spaces that more closely mimic what it’s like to be face to face.”

Steelcase researchers began studying distributed teamwork in the early 2000s as more organisations wanted to leverage the power of global teams to speed innovation. They found connecting people from different cultures helped create diversity of thought and lead to more robust ideas. But they also saw that presence disparity is more than just a nuisance. It’s not unusual for people to become frustrated and feel strained physically, cognitively and emotionally. “If organisations want remote teams to collaborate effectively and drive innovation, they will need to improve the experiences so people can remain engaged and productive,” says Moutrey.

Technology for teams
Teams are looking at technology for help. Huge strides have been made in software specifically designed to help people collaborate more effectively when they are not co-located. For example, the video and content sharing capabilities of platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and WebEx allow team members to see each other and share content in real time. But people don’t always take advantage of the full capabilities of these platforms, especially the video camera. Some people default to audio only because they’d rather not dress up or show their messy house. But turning on the camera makes conversations go faster and more smoothly.

Being able to read visual cues, such as body language and facial expressions, helps limit people interrupting or speaking over one another. Eye-to-eye contact, which is the basis of human connection both biologically and culturally, allows us to read other people’s intentions and fosters mutual understanding and empathy. This is especially important when distributed teams include people from different countries and cultures. Another benefit of turning your camera on: It helps keep people from multitasking or tuning out.

These collaboration technologies help people communicate better, but they’re limited by scale, especially for large group and generative collaboration. “PC-based web video platforms improve the experience of remote team members, but they don’t always support the content and the people at the same time. You have to choose between them,” says David Blickle, an information technology specialist at Steelcase. For example, when you share content with web video programs, you’re no longer able to see people very well since most of the screen is used to share the content and images of the people are reduced to small thumbnails at the bottom of the screen. “To create a better experience, especially for larger teams, you need to use large-scale collaboration devices, such as the Microsoft Surface Hub, that can support high definition video conferencing,” says Blickle.

Fusing the virtual and physical
Many organisations today are using large scale, high definition video conferencing to support remote teamwork. But according to Blickle, they usually take existing spaces, such as a traditional conference room, and add a monitor and camera. A rectangular table, a common feature in most meeting spaces, makes it difficult to have everyone in the room on camera and so people on video can’t see everyone in the room. There’s often just one monitor, which only allows teams to see each other or the content, but not both at the same time. Audio pickup can be uneven, depending on where people sit. “As video conferencing becomes an everyday work behaviour, it’s important to remember that you need to also consider the spatial implications when you’re designing spaces for remote collaboration if you expect to improve the experience,” says Blickle.

“Teams that share a physical space can be more productive in terms of creative problem-solving, task coordination, evaluation and learning,” says Patricia Kammer, a Steelcase researcher studying global teams. “We studied how they get to know each other quickly, interact spontaneously and are surrounded by their work— it’s persistent within the space. For teams who need to work in diverse locations, the design goal should always be to eliminate the gap of not being co-located.”

“We know for distributed teams today, success requires the fluid flow of knowledge and ideas,” says Kammer.

Nothing can replace the experience of being together in person, but today that is not always an option. Technology can go a long way toward bringing distributed teams closer but thinking about how that technology works within the office — whether in a dedicated room or the open plan — makes a big difference. When the physical space is designed to enhance the technology, it can help create an even better experience for teams who are trying to work together when they have to be apart.

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