Do we really need to commute back and forth every workday in order to foster and maintain relationships with a given group of people? Let’s consider this question. During my exploration of how dispersed teams function, I’ve encountered people (such as described in this post) who meet in person as infrequently as once a quarter. It surprises most people that this can work. Speaking from my own experience as a team member of Better Collaboration, I’m happy to report that there are other factors (aside from opportunities for in-person interaction) contributing to a sense of cohesion.
Upon comparing my experiences with in-person versus technologically-mediated meetings, I’ve observed that having a strong shared sense of purpose and common interests helps transcend the physical distance factor. So when I hear people say they would rather have others drive from one city to another just for the sake of getting everyone in one room for every meeting rather than have occasional virtual meetings, I wince.
I propose that we look carefully at different variables that contribute to a sense of group cohesion. How much of this cohesion can be attributed to being physically present and how much can be attributed to group members having the same vision, goals, and interests? Have you ever been to a bunch of face-to-face meetings with the same people and NOT felt a sense of group cohesion? I have! For more times than I can count! I don’t discount the contribution of in-person presence. However, as someone who has forged some great friendships with people I might never meet in person, I think there’s something to be said for being passionate about the same issues.
Having been an online gamer and having known other online gamers has allowed me to gain insight into how readily people can form social bonds over the Internet (and yes, this isn’t always a good thing where young ones are concerned). However, it is interesting to see gamers playing alongside others who’re on the opposite side of the world, transcending distance and cross-cultural barriers, on a myriad of games – from MMORPGs to console games such as Call of Duty. From this experience, I’ve observed the type of trust, communication skills, and a sense of camaraderie that I’ve seen missing among employees who see each other 40 hours a week. However, you can also expect hostile interactions due to anonymity and disinhibition, especially in situations that don’t involve teamwork, as well! Back to the point – physical presence does not make up for a lack of engagement and shared interest in the endeavor at hand. Oh, and before you ask, yes, many avid gamers do go outside and have “irl” friends. So the entire bonding experience can’t be simply explained by not having an outside life.
What’s more is that you can simply look at the social and recreational habits of digital natives, comprised of Generations Y and Z, to see that their lives are already characterized by a much greater degree of social bonding via communication technology when compared to previous generational cohorts. Their social circles are more likely to include friends in other regions of the world who they have not met face-to-face. See Figure 3B and the ensuing discussion in New Digital Influencers: The Coming Youthquake by Brian Solis. Although concern has been expressed over how much time young people are spending online and offline, it’s not realistic to turn back the clock to technologically simpler times. Concerned parties might be able to spur interest in offline activities however, as digital anthropologists like Brian Solis say, being born into a time with such advanced communication technology has impacted their life experiences. Rest assured, young people generally still want spend time offline with others.
Finally, note that there are other ways to foster group cohesion for dispersed teams as well. Some helpful strategies are laid out in 6 Strategies for Managing Dispersed Intelligence Teams by Orlaith Finnegan. However, with regard to the issues covered in this post I believe that more weight should be placed on selecting and cultivating people who share the same vision, sense of purpose, and goals rather than merely conducting frequent in-person meetings or squeezing everyone into the same building for 40 hours a week. (As a side note, a proper amount of space and time apart is good for relationships as well!)
In closing, here’s the first video in a series providing analysis of digital natives’ lives as well as contributions and challenges to organizations. Please share your thoughts, and stay tuned for the next installment of Images of Industrial Age Office Work!
For further interest in this subject matter, check out Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age by Mary Chayko is Assistant Professor and Chair of Sociology at the College of St. Elizabeth (click here to buy the e-book and here for paperback).