How to Make Distance Work Work: A short review on a useful article

I read this insightful article on working across distances a couple of years ago in ACM Interactions Magazine (March-April 2014) and posted the following short blog on an internal community site at work. I continue to find the article so useful, often pointing others to it, I thought it worth moving over here for quick public access.

It is entitled How to Make Distance Work Work and is part of a number of publications based on the research of the authors, Judith S. Olson and Gary M. Olson.

They begin with a summary of three key insights:

  • Distance still matters, but it matters less.
  • There are four stubborn problems that affect distance collaborations: out of sight out of mind, trust, culture, and time zones.
  • Informed selection of a suite of technologies can make a big difference in effective distance collaborations.

The authors then go into the detail of their research behind these insights, including what the stressors tend to be in distance work and how changes in social practices and technologies can make distance matter less. They address the latter on three levels: the individual member of a distributed team, the manager of a distributed team, and the organization supporting distributed teams, and offer recommendations to each level on their behavior and practices in, and for, the remote context.

I came away thinking that while tools and technologies are an important part of what can make distance work work, it is the ‘soft stuff’, and establishing practices like what they call a “communication covenant” up front, that can make the biggest difference. I also thought that this article could be used as an inspiring basis to build a kind of framework for successful remote collaboration. It would include the responsibilities at each level (individual, manager, organization), and a set of tools and related usage practices for communication, coordination, information, computational infrastructure — and I’d add, for interactive collaboration — that teams could use and adapt as they need. As the article suggests, the successful practice across any team would depend a lot on the willingness of team members to educate themselves and others as they go.

I would be interested in hearing what others think of this article and how we could leverage its wealth of insights to enrich our own practices, and team health, as we endeavor to work successfully across distances great and small.

You can read the article online at acm.org here: http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/march-april-2014/how-to-make-distance-work-work.

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