In 2009, Cisco CEO John Chambers asserted that “the face-to-face meeting is a dinosaur,” and he demonstrated his point in a Telepresence-enabled company meeting from Bangalore, India with his fellow executive, Marthin de Beer, in San Jose, California.
Marisa Mayer of Yahoo seems not to agree with Chambers’ premise.
Her highly-publicized decision to require remote workers to work on-site every day in Yahoo offices received mixed reviews from advocates of flexible work practices such as ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment).
Mayer argued that co-location will enable Yahoos to more effectively collaborate and innovate.
-*What is the evidence for – or against – her assertion?
A decade ago, in 2003, a meta-analysis of face-to-face meetings’ impact on group cohesiveness, task commitment, authority, communication noted the one benefit of virtual meetings: “status-equalizing impact of computer-supported cooperative work … enables greater participation by women, minorities and other traditionally lower status groups.
Florida Maxima Corporation’s James Driskell collaborated with Paul Radtke, Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division and University of Central Florida’s Eduardo Salas summarized often-conflicting findings on the impact of virtual teams and concluded that interaction in virtual environments requires consideration of the type of task that the team is performing.
Agile software development is an example of a process that originally assumed – and required – team member co-location.
Microsoft trainer Sandeep Joshi offered an alternate model to co-location for Agile development, and argued that some tasks in the Agile development process are suitable for remote work by distributed teams.
Because more than half of respondents to VersionOne’s 2012 State of Agile survey said they use Agile with co-located and distributed teams, or plan to do so in the future, Joshi advocates maintaining collaborative, co-located design processes to capitalize on group interaction, then “de-Agilizing” the process to enable individual coding before re-convening to evaluate the work in “rapid turns.”
Distance is not only physical, according to SUNY Stony Brook’s Karen Sobel-Lojeski.
She conceptualizes three types of virtual distance:
- Affinity (culture and background differences like ethnicity, educational background, past familiarity, shared vision, and commitment that affect team productivity and cohesiveness
- Operational (type and frequency of communication)
- Physical (geographic separation)
Like Joshi, they advocate analyzing the nature of the tasks and existing interpersonal relationships among team members before mandating co-location, virtual, or blended work arrangements.
Sobel-Lojeski and Reilly conclude that important workplace competencies are traversing boundaries, glocalization, and authenticity, leading to what they call “techno-dexterity” required for effective leadership in a wired world.
Among the drawbacks of co-location are increased work interruptions, which can reduce productivity and cognitive performance.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Alessandro Acquisti and Eyal Pe’er demonstrated decreased cognitive task performance after electronic interruptions and task-shifts similar to responding to a mobile phone call, text message or email.
More than 135 volunteers read a short document and answered questions about the content.
One third of the participants completed this portion of the experiment and served as the control group.
The remaining individuals were told they “might be contacted for further instructions” via instant message.
This alerted group completed a similar reading comprehension test, and half of this group actually received instant messages, whereas the other half didn’t receive the anticipated notices.
Both interrupted groups provided 20% less accurate responses than the control group, suggesting a significant cost to interruptions and task shifting.
However, when the interrupted group performed the similar task a second time, this group reduced the under-performance by 6%.
Those who were warned of an interruption that never came improved by 43 percent, and even outperformed the control test takers who were left alone.
Acquisti and Pe’er suggested that people may develop compensatory strategies to manage the performance impact of interruptions.
Likewise, University of California, Irvine’s Gloria Mark with Daniela Gudith and Ulrich Klocke of Germany’s Humboldt University reported that a typical office worker is interrupted about every 3-11 minutes and requires an average of 23-25 minutes to return to the original task.
Volunteers worked faster when they anticipate interruptions, particularly those who measured high on openness to experience and high on need for personal structure.
However, participants reported increased stress, higher workload, greater frustration, more time pressure and effort when they increased work speed.
These findings provide equivocal support for Mayer’s anticipated benefits from workplace co-location.
Her team may experience increased stress due to interruptions, task-shifting, and noise, in addition to any personal concerns about lengthy commutes and work-life balance.
This inference was supported in research by Harvard’s Leslie Perlow, who studied engineers working in an open-space environment.
These highly-skilled knowledge workers reported frequent interruptions and reduced productivity.
Perlow offered these engineers a recommendation: Pre-scheduled interruption-free “quiet time”.
She found that this intervention led to increased productivity.
Similarly, Catherine Kerr of Brown University suggests that the impact of frequent task-shifts in open work environments can be mitigated by mindfulness meditation as brain training to enable increased attentional focus by attending to breathing.
Workplace inclusion and diversity issues add to questions of whether co-location actually increases innovation, collaboration, and productivity.
Pew Research Center reported that working mothers were more concerned with having a flexible schedule whereas working fathers placed more importance on having a high-paying job.
When employees actually use increasingly-available flexible work options, including job-sharing, telecommuting, and compressed work weeks, they may experience adverse career impacts.
Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law with University of Iowas’ Jennifer Glass, Shelley Correll of Stanford and University of Toronto’s Jennifer Berdahl reported that men who take leave from work after the birth of a child were more likely to be penalized and less likely to get promoted or receive raises.
In addition, they found that women using flexible work arrangements receive differing feedback from others depending on their socioeconomic status: Affluent women were encouraged to stay at home, whereas less affluent women were more likely to be counseled not to have children.
Despite John Chamber’s death-of-face-to-face meetings assessment and recent findings by Kenneth Matos and Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, Cisco Systems executives seem aligned with Mayer’s advocacy for in-person collaboration.
During a recent preview of renovated office buildings featuring “Collaborative Work Spaces,” Cisco business leaders asserted that the layout is intended to increase collaboration and attract recent graduates and other “younger talent” by “projecting a hip, innovative image in the work environment.”
They noted that this arrangement is actually more costly than offices and cubicles despite accommodating more workers in the same amount of space.
Past research suggest costs to adopting computer-mediated work processes, yet these technologies have improved, become more prevalent, and workers have become more skilled in their use.
Further, virtual collaboration enables workplace participation by people who might require flexible schedules, and reduces the environmental impact, cost, and perceived stress of commuting.
-*How is your productivity affected by physical proximity to your co-workers?
-*How do you manage distractions in open office environments?
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