Future of Work

Remote work: Team diversity and collaboration matter more than location

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“It’s not where we work that matters the most, it’s how the work is done and who is doing it.” Image: UNSPLASH/Surface

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Remote teams display as much collective intelligence as those who meet face-to-face.
  • Organized collaboration, social skills and diversity are the keys to creating smart teams.
  • Teams with more women are smarter and more successful, a new study shows.

Two heads are better than one, so the old saying goes and it’s long been known that when people get together they solve problems more quickly. Now research shows the proverb holds true, even for remote working.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management have analysed the work of more than 1,300 groups and found that their collective intelligence was just as high in a virtual world as when they worked face-to-face.

“Our findings suggest that this decision of where co-workers are located is not as critical as some assume,” they say, writing in the Sloan Management Review. “It’s not where we work that matters the most, it’s how the work is done and who is doing it.”

Their findings will be welcome news to individuals and employers who have extended home working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter have all delayed plans for employees to return to their offices over rising levels of COVID-19 cases.

And it would seem hybrid is becoming the working mode of choice. A survey conducted by Ipsos for the World Economic Forum found that two-thirds of people around the world want to work flexibly when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. A third of those interviewed said they would even quit their jobs if forced to return to the workplace.

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a chart showing how remote workers are reluctant to return to the workplace
Remote workers are reluctant to return to the office full-time. Image: Statista

A study by YouGov in the US found that 77% of employees who started working from home for the first time during the pandemic said they liked the experience and 81% of the same group said they would like to continue to do so after the pandemic was over.

Collaboration, empathy, diversity

But the MIT research suggests there’s no need to compel people back to the office. The researchers say team success comes down to three key factors: how they collaborate; the skills - especially social skills - of the group members; and the number of women in the group.

Detailing their findings in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, the researchers added that the proportion of women in groups was “a significant predictor of group performance” because of their “social perceptiveness” - the ability to read non-verbal cues from colleagues.

Successful groups took time to work out who was best at different tasks and then gave those people the lead on those tasks. It was equally important to coordinate tasks to ensure that nothing was left unfinished.

“Collectively intelligent teams are able to coordinate in these ways regardless of where they are working,” they say. In the same way, social skills turned out to be just as important as technical skills in remote working as well as for face-to-face groups.

In fact, a group’s collaboration process was more important in predicting their collective intelligence than the skill of individual members, the researchers added.

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Groundless fears

The MIT team says employers’ fears that remote working inhibits relationship building and collaboration are not borne out by their study. In fact, they say, in many cases “remote work can be at least as effective as in-person work”.

In reality, they add, remote work does not mean that employees never meet in person. It’s just that they don’t work in the same office every day. And remote working means teams can be assembled based on the right mix of skills rather than the location of individuals.

“In addition to its organizational benefits, remote work enhances employees’ ability to achieve better work-life balance and it also benefits the environment through reduced travel and emissions from commuting,” they add.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report said more than eight in ten employers were planning to digitize work processes, which would significantly increase the number of people working remotely.

Even without the impact of COVID-19, the report forecast that 44% of jobs would be remotely based in the near future with one third of employers planning to use digital tools to create a sense of community and well-being among their people.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Future of WorkFuture of WorkDiversity and Inclusion
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