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“Bursty” Communication Can Help Remote Teams Thrive

By Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley



Working from home is becoming more mainstream, but large employers are starting to wonder whether remote work actually stifles innovation and productivity. Can remote teams achieve the productivity of the office and still allow the convenience of working at home?

The general thinking seems to be swinging toward “no.” Many tech companies like IBM, Apple, Facebook, and Google rely heavily on remote teams, but some of them have started to discourage the practice. To compensate for the lost convenience, companies try luring people to linger at work with free food and laundry services. The rationale for this move is that remote workers do not meet by chance at the proverbial watercooler, encounters that, the thinking goes, will lead to better innovation.

This backlash against remote work may be wrongheaded. In recent research published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries ( original article and open access pre-print), we show that remote teams who communicate in bursts - exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity - perform much better than remote teams whose conversations involve long lag time between responses and are spread across multiple topic threads. In other words, it might not be distance per se that limits remote teams.

Can remote teams achieve the productivity of the office and still allow the convenience of working at home?

In our randomized controlled trial, we studied 260 software workers spanning 50 different countries, separating them into 52 teams of five and charging them with the same task: develop an algorithm that can recommend the ideal contents of a medical kit on a space flight.

We offered about half the teams cash prizes, the equivalent of those Silicon Valley perks like gourmet food trucks and on-site gym and laundry services. It might surprise some employers to learn that while the incentives did spur some activity and effort, incentives ultimately did nothing to improve the quality of the work.

What did lead to better outcomes was having a “bursty” communication style, where ideas were communicated and responded to quickly. By contrast, in environments where communication and feedback were delayed or dispersed across multiple threads, teams suffered, and the quality of their work suffered. These findings suggest a new outlook on team performance. Traditionally, performance has been attributed largely to the abilities of the individual members (e.g., general cognitive ability). Thus, many of the models of team effectiveness have highlighted team composition and, over the last few decades, an extensive focus on team diversity.

People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.

Our study, which randomly assigned individuals to teams and thus controls for skill, counters this traditional view and extends the ongoing debate concerning the relative contribution of member ability versus emergent collaboration. Aided by advances in statistical tools and machine learning, our research leverages digital trace data left by the computer-mediated communication of our remote teams to show strong positive effects (a one standard deviation increase in burstiness lead to a 24 percent performance increase) of emergent collaboration processes on team performance, even when inputs such as incentives and member skills are controlled.

People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.

Employers might read the results of our research and think they can more easily foster the right communication style if everyone comes to the office. But there are good reasons to reconsider that strategy. Remote teams that stagnate do so not because their members aren’t hanging out at the watercooler; rather, it’s their communication style that’s to blame. If they switch to a style that is more aligned with the normal patterns of in-person conversations, remote teams can be just as successful-and creative-as those who are spending long hours at their desk, noshing sushi on the company dime.

Why might burstiness succeed? One reason is that burstiness is a signal that team members attend to and align their activities with one another. During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas. Conversely, during longer periods of silence everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.

In contrast, teams that don’t communicate in bursts miss out on the benefits of both energetic collaboration and truly focused work time. Presumably, these team members are constantly toggling between modes.

By designing systems that facilitate bursts of communication and collaboration among team members, employers can achieve higher quality collaboration in their teams, all while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely.

Our research suggests that rather than treating email communication as a purely asynchronous means of communication where everyone can engage with others if and when they feel like it, teams can achieve higher performance if they use email more synchronously. This requires appropriate prioritization. If a team member asks for input and is waiting for a response before she can continue her work, there could be benefits for the team if such requests are answered quickly. Quick input creates rapid bursts of back-and-forth exchange, in which ideas are discussed and blocks to productivity are removed.

Generating bursts of activity through appropriate prioritization may be particularly important if team members are distributed across different time zones. If a response to a question comes in only after several hours, it may be too late in the day for the recipient to do anything with it.

By designing systems that facilitate bursts of communication and collaboration among team members, employers can achieve higher quality collaboration in their teams, all while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely. And that creates innovation, no matter where the office-or the watercooler-is located.


Christoph Riedl is a collaborator of A Tribe Called Humans and scientific advisor. Thanks for letting us share your work here!


This research was conducted before COVID-19, which has made remote work a new normal for many of us. Let us know how communication works and supports (or doesn’t) collaboration and productivity in your remote work environments. This article will be part of a series of content we intend to share in the future about how to achieve better resourcefulness in organisations.


Originally published at https://behavioralscientist.org on May 29, 2018.

© 2020 by A Tribe Called Humans

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