“Work from home if you can and in the office if you need to.” That is still the rule in many companies. But when is working in the office really necessary and useful? A few years ago I wrote about Judith and Gary Olson, two pioneers in researching the differences between remote and co-location collaboration. According to them, it is smart to spend the scarce time together mainly on complex tasks. On work that is not routine. Why is that so important?
When you sit together, say these American psychologists, communication is most fluid. That’s because ‘live’ meetings take care of most common ground and the least misunderstanding. What do they mean by that?
First things first: what is common ground? That is the knowledge that we share together and that we also know we share. You develop this common knowledge base by working together in one place. For example, you learn how to articulate an idea in order to achieve the rest. As you talk, you pay attention to all kinds of subtle signals from colleagues. You check whether your message arrives. If this is not the case, adjust your behaviour. When you sit together, this goes smoothly and automatically.
When people work together and communicate, there are constant misunderstandings
Why is that common ground so important? When people work together and communicate, there is actually a constant misunderstanding, Olson & Olson observed. Not big, but small. We don’t immediately understand what someone means by a reference like, “That idea from just now.” We’re not sure how a comment falls with the rest. The more common ground, the less of these mini-misunderstandings, and the higher the productivity, the researchers said.
Confusion that still arises is also resolved more quickly when you are together. Olson & Olson saw all sorts of interesting behavior in this area. For example, some people like to draw in the air when explaining something complicated to colleagues. The funny thing is, when they go back to that idea, others then point to that same spot in the sky and everyone else immediately understands this gesture.
Another example: when someone makes a proposal, colleagues often quickly look around the group to find out how this idea goes. We often know at a glance what the mood is. According to Olson & Olson, it is remarkable how effortlessly colleagues interact in such situations.
Conclusion: the interaction of people who are together in one room is in many subtle ways not just a little, but a lot richer than that of people who communicate online. And it is precisely this wealth that is relevant for complex tasks, such as working together on creative challenges or dividing new tasks among themselves, where most mini-misunderstandings occur. So that’s what you should spend your time on if you’re in the office together once or twice a week.
That also provides a nice bonus, according to the Olsons. By regularly meeting as a team and working on your common ground – by, say, being well versed in your team – remote collaboration also receives a positive impulse.
Ben Tiggelaar writes weekly about personal leadership, work and management.
When you really need to sit together
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