Making distributed teams work: Interaction, Trust and Control

DSC_2469In traditional collocated work-environment we easily get to know each other: We eat lunch together; gather for social activities after hours; share personal details about our family, interests, vacation and so on. In collocated we automatically, over time, establish interpersonal relations that exceeds our professional cooperation over time. This is usually not the case in distributed teams.

When we are working in a collocated environment we automatically pick up a lot of contextual information: We know who is present and when they arrived; we gain insights into our colleagues moods and we easily spot if they are stressed out, overworked and so on. All this happens automatically and unconsciously. All we need to do is be there. Within research this concept of ”just being around” is customarily referred to as passive face time (Elsbach et. al.; 2010)

Furthermore, in the process of establishing interpersonal relations we learn a lot about each other that is not easily communicated explicitly, which Polanyi (1962) coined with the term tacit knowledge more than fifty years ago. But relations are also important because of lack of relationship building often result in negative relations where the team members produce negative perceptions of the remote colleagues (Elsbach et. al.; 2010). This has a negative influence on the collaboration in distributed teams. Based on many years of psychological studies Kiesler and Cummings (2002) concluded that team-members’ well-being and performance is higher when interacting face-to-face with each other; and thus, merely being in physical proximity has a positive impact on social interaction.

The reality of distributed teams is quite different: In distributed teams we tend to be more ”straight to the point”; we apply a minimum of socialization; we do not enquire about each others well-being; we do not small talk about the weather, the weekend, vacation, family and so on. Consequently, social interaction does not happen automatically as we will usually seek to minimize interaction in distributed teams – we apply the least collaborative effort as Herb Clark (1996) phrased it.

“ interaction does not happen automatically as we will usually seek to minimize interaction in distributed teams – we apply the least collaborative effort..”

In this case study we examine the importance of social interaction and interpersonal relations in global teams within the IT-industry:

  • Are interpersonal relations in distributed teams important at all?
  • How are such relationships established in a context characterized by lack of passive face time and cultural heterogeneity? ‘
  • How can we build trust in virtual teams?
  • And what about control: can we rely on the same low level of control, as we are accustomed to in Danish organizations, when working in global teams?


Related References

  • Clark, H.H. (1996). Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Elsbach, K. D., Cable, D. M., & Sherman, J. W. (2010). How passive ”face time” affects perceptions of employees: Evidence of spontaneous trait inference. Human Relations, 63(6), 735-760.
  • Kiesler, S., J.N. Cummings. (2002). What Do We Know about Proximity and Distance in Work Groups: A Legacy of Research. P. Hinds, S. Kiesler, eds. Distributed Work. MIT Press, MAS, 57-x83