Co-located or dispersed teams?

There were conversations going on this week about the merits of having dispersed versus co-located team members. We are trying to decide whether to co-locate people. It's a fraught and complex issue not least because it could mean requiring people to move. It also means determining criteria for co-location, for example:

  • Is it to improve the outcomes of working on a specific project? If so, what happens when this is closed? (And how do we know we couldn't get the same outcomes from a dispersed team?)
  • Is it to encourage multi-disciplinary working? If so, how do know what multi-disciplinary mix to co-locate in a continually changing work context?
  • Is it to cluster functional or operational team members together (perhaps creating silos)? If so how will we know that this type of co-location is 'better' than multi-disciplinary?
  • Is it to indicate that we don't approve of remote/dispersed/virtual working? If so how will we explain that as many organizations are now shifting towards virtual working? (Also, does requirement to be on a specific site challenge attracting and retaining people?)

As in many conversations, views are based on emotion, opinion and personal preference with not too much (any?) discussion about actual evidence of the merits of one over the other. I started to look around for empirical research on this topic.

Three studies stood out as representing the findings of several:

'Comparing traditional and virtual group forms: identity, communication and trust in naturally occurring project teams' reports on a 'field study of naturally occurring project teams in a global firm. In this study, some groups were traditional (that is, co-located or face-to face), some were purely virtual (completely distributed), and some were what we call 'semi-virtual' or hybrid (composed of a local subgroup as well as remote team members)'. ( J. Webster and W.K.P. Wong)

The Effects of Teams' Co-location on Project Performance 'This paper aims to present an analysis between teams' co-location and project performance. … what are the effects of teams' co-location on project performance? The paper provides a literature review about teams' co-location, its advantages and disadvantages, virtual teams and project performance parameters.' (This paper looked at a variety of performance indicators, for example, speed and ability to solve a customer's problem comparing the different types of team's performance against the indicators). (Marina Mendonca et al)

Team member proximity and teamwork in innovative projects 'Innovation teams vary in terms of team members' proximity, i.e., the degree to which all team members are in direct vicinity over the duration of the project. The proximity of team members, however, has potentially important implications for the collaborative working of teams. In this paper, we develop and test hypotheses relating team members' proximity to the performance-relevant team collaborative processes included in Hoegl and Gemuenden's [Organization Science 12 (4) (2001) 435] teamwork quality framework, i.e., communication, coordination, balance of member contributions, mutual support, effort, and cohesion.' (Martin Hoegl and Luigi Proserpio)

In brief these three papers tell us that:

1. Team size matters (whether or not co-located) – smaller teams work better than larger teams on various dimensions including trust, productivity, and knowledge sharing.

2. Management style matters – if teams are to be dispersed then it must be a positive team-design decision – so you select team members for their ability to build relationships over distance and for managing working well alone. You select team leaders/managers for their ability to trust, respect and empower others. Thus, 'good' management is more important in dispersed teams than co-located ones. (Which could, I guess, suggest that if you knew you had poor managers you should opt for co-location as team members can collectively work around poor management better when they are in proximity. Alternatively you could train people to lead and manage dispersed teams effectively).

3. Social and community spirit matters – whether dispersed or co-located teams that have a sense of team identity, trust each other and get on well socially perform better than teams without any one of these. In part this is factor is related to management style.

4. Technology matters – where communication is mediated through various forms of technology – collaborative platforms, webchats, SMS, phone, etc then dispersed team members must have excellent skills in using it (and the technology needs to be effective and reliable). Face to face is easiest for communication as you are picking up nuanced non-verbal signals among other things.

In terms of productivity, quality and successful outcomes researchers have not found a difference between co-located teams and dispersed teams assuming the four points above are in play. To repeat, these are: small teams, good management, community spirit, effective technology and technology use. Where all four factors are not in play then performance is somewhat improved by co-location.

Where researchers have found a productivity and performance difference is in teams that are part co-located and part-dispersed. As Webster and Wong report: 'Study results imply that it is best to avoid creating semi-virtual teams – in other words, all team members should be 'in the same boat', that is, all local or all remote. However, if creating semi-virtual teams cannot be avoided, there are methods for minimizing problems.'

What the research shows is that for dispersed teams to work well there has to be a conscious and ongoing intentionality to make them work well. Where they are co-located there has to be a view on what co-location means (a team spread across two floors is not necessarily co-located).

The research suggests that coming down in favour of either dispersed or co-located teams without thinking it through is too simplistic a response. Both can work and both have pros and cons. Discussing the various trade-offs and making a considered decision, using available evidence and given the organisation's context and options could lead to an informed choice.

What's your view on remote or co-located teams? Let me know.

NB: If you don't want to go for academic research that is evidence based, Martin Howe gives his 'tentative opinion' on various types of team configuration in a useful and nicely illustrated piece.