Shaping the future of work is as much about studying the way real people connect and collaborate today as it is about imagining the new tools we’ll be using tomorrow, especially for those who are members of distributed teams.
Distributed teams—groups of people who work together across geographical distances and cultural barriers—are a central part of Stanford University professor Pamela Hinds’s research and work. As the director of Stanford’s Center on Work, Technology, and Organization in the Department of Management Science and Engineering, she oversees research on how professions and collaboration change over time and how emerging technology influences the way people feel about their work.
Hinds believes overcoming work problems is about understanding the human side of the technological revolution. The benefits of distributed teams are many, she says. What’s more, technology has only made it easier to connect and conduct remote work. But the challenges of having productive, nuanced human relationships go far beyond the technical ability to communicate.
“It’s very important that when people are not co-located, there are efforts made to help that team remember what their common vision is and see themselves as a team, an entity that’s working towards something together,” says Hinds.
Slack recently chatted with Hinds about the pains and promise of distributed teams, what companies can do to support productive collaboration in the workplace, and the trends that will define the way people work together around the world.
Slack: What are the main benefits, both to organizations and to individual workers, of having distributed teams?
Pamela Hinds: I’ll differentiate working on a distributed team versus working remotely (such as telecommuting arrangements) because I think they have very different benefits. One of the real benefits to companies of having distributed teams is that you get different perspectives. Oftentimes, organizations want to tap into expertise that can’t be hired locally. They want to get perspectives from markets that they are operating in or want to operate in. I really believe that, particularly for global organizations, when you bring in perspectives from people from around the world who have different experiences, different cultural backgrounds, you just get a more complete view of, for example, how people might experience a product.
For workers, we often find that working globally is more stressful—it’s more taxing because of the off-hours work. But we also find that workers feel they’re learning more. They get excited about understanding how people think about things differently in different parts of the world. Many see it as a real growth opportunity to work in this way.
If we’re talking about remote work—when workers are allowed to work from anywhere—I think it’s enormously helpful for individual workers in particular. Assuming they’ve got their environment set up well, it helps them to manage the demands of home, family, and work, reducing the commute. The organization benefits because people are able to contribute more to work, and it also really improves people’s quality of life.
Slack: So what are the trade-offs, given that technology lets people communicate at a distance?
Hinds: When people are spread around and not meeting face to face, coordination is harder. We rely so much more than we realize on these subtle, what I refer to as ambient, cues about people, their work styles, their communication patterns, cultures, and so forth. And then under that coordination lies things like trust. Unless we have really effective ways of helping replace those interpersonal processes, I think people will continue to struggle with that balance.
Slack: What can organizations do to strengthen the interpersonal connection of workers who are far apart?
Hinds: I think a big piece of it is just being aware that even though you have video conferencing and you have phones and you can send 100 emails a day, it does not replace some of the things that happen in person. It’s not just to make people feel good, and it’s not just people over 40; it actually matters. It’s not going to change with the millennials, not from what I’ve seen. I believe that even with current technologies, organizations still need to pay for travel. It doesn’t have to happen a lot. I don’t necessarily advocate strongly for big meetings where you bring everybody together, but I do believe that having people travel to the location of their other team members really helps to provide that contextual knowledge that’s missing. And the benefits accrue for a long period of time—that knowledge stays with people after they go home.
Slack: You’ve done a lot of work around the challenges that cultural differences can bring into these situations. What are some of the key things that organizations should do when trying to establish shared values and practices across cultures?
Hinds: I’m vocally not an advocate of “best practices.” I think they’re contextually dependent, and what works great here in Silicon Valley might not work in Beijing or in Heidelberg or wherever. A couple of things I think are really key. One is to understand that and invest time in understanding the different perspectives and the different work practices that people have and why that works for them. And then, ideally, particularly if it’s a stable team, it’s going to be working together for a while, figuring out together how they want to work together and what practices are going to work for everybody so that you don’t have one group that is really favored because the practices all work for them.
One of the other things that I’ve seen work incredibly well is having a liaison, somebody that is able to translate across the different cultures. There’s new emerging research on what are called multicultural individuals. These are people who have worked in or maybe have family members from different cultures, so they’re accustomed to having a foot in two cultures. And it turns out that they’re pretty good at being liaisons even if they’re not bridging the cultures that they’re familiar with, just because they developed an awareness of the kind of breakdowns that can happen and they have the cognitive dexterity to ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked.
Slack: What has been one of the biggest surprises that has come out of your research?
Hinds: I think one of the biggest surprises in the global teams research for me was the study where we set out to understand cultural differences in the teams and we ended up with five of the first maybe 15 people we interviewed in tears around language issues. It was so emotional for them because they were working with teams in Europe that would switch to a language that they didn’t speak. They felt excluded, left out.
Language is a really interesting one, because it’s not like you can go to a class for a week and fix it. We did find in our research that you can’t fix the problem, but you can fix some of the anxiety and frustration by analyzing the problem. One thing that we saw with some of the teams that we studied was that the only time they ever spoke English was when they were on these conference calls once a week or once every other week, and that made it a really stressful time—when they were supposed to be collaborating, it was more like taking a test. So they started having English-language Fridays. They’d speak to each other in English, and that enabled them to practice their English skills in a lower-stakes environment.
Slack: Ten or 20 or 30 years from now, what do you predict will be new standards of work that are considered experimental or cutting-edge now (or that barely exist yet)?
Hinds: One is creating a much stronger sense of presence and contexts as people collaborate. Video is getting better, people have more of a sense of one another, but still, with the exception of tools like Slack, most of the investment over the last few decades in collaboration technologies, aside from those for software development, are meeting support. It’s allowing us to sit in a meeting room and have a conversation, but that’s really not the way that most work happens. So, additional tools that allow people to actually get work done together. The extreme of this would be building things together, physical objects. Having the haptics developed. I don’t know where we’re going to go with virtual reality because there are so many physiological limitations with what we can do in that. The vision would be, in 30 years from now, I could be in that room with you virtually and we could operate on the same objects together.