An explosion of digital technology made today’s hybrid workplace possible, but it couldn’t upgrade the analog infrastructure that is the human brain.
There’s a low-key tug of war underway in the white-collar workplace. Senior leaders are doing their best to drag resisting employees back to physical offices. Thanks to the tight labor market, though, employees possess enough pull to force a hybrid compromise. That’s good news for professionals seeking more control over how they juggle work and life. But what about their employers?
Based on her influential research on the challenges of remote work, Catherine Cramton, emeritus professor of management at George Mason University School of Business, says that if managers aren’t careful, team communication and cohesion may be lost in the transition to hybrid.
Her work finds that putting physical distance between employees creates a contextual clash that our minds weren’t designed to handle. An explosion of digital technology made today’s hybrid workplace possible, but it couldn’t upgrade the analog infrastructure that is the human brain.
As an assistant professor at Mason in the 1990s, Cramton was interviewing people at Northern Virginia technology companies about their team-related challenges. They described difficult experiences with a new type of collaboration – geographically distributed and technology-enabled–that eventually came to be known as virtual teams. This led to a 2001 Organization Science paper that has been cited in fields as disparate as library science, counterterrorism, engineering and nursing. Having acquired even greater relevance since the pandemic-fueled work-from-home boom, it was the focus of a November 2022 Financial Times piece.
Cramton’s original study hooked up Mason students with peers at other universities, both elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally. Using the communication tools that existed at the time (e-mail, telephone, fax, Instant Messenger-type chat applications, etc.), the teams were assigned to create a concept, business plan, and marketing strategy for a new venture. The collaborations were far from harmonious. Seven of the 13 teams developed warring cliques. Five of the seven experienced such fierce infighting that certain members ended up being all but excluded from the exercise. After the fact, e-mail and chat logs allowed Cramton to follow the fireworks and trace how dust-ups got started.
Most of the conflict, she found, stemmed from what the paper calls “failure to communicate and retain contextual information”. Simply put, when we can’t share physical space with a colleague, we know a lot less about their situation–which often determines why they do what they do (or don’t do). So a cognitive tic called “attribution bias” kicks in to fill in the knowledge gap, causing us to draw conclusions about their character. When misunderstandings occur between physically distanced colleagues, “the tendency is to leap to a negative assumption, and those are mostly wrong,” Cramton says.
Throw cultural differences into the mix, and the potential for misguided conflict grows. As an example, Cramton tells a story about a former student whose team comprised American and Brazilian developers. On one project, the Brazilian contingent delivered patently inadequate work, leaving their Stateside counterparts confused, disappointed, and expressing “all kinds of negativity”. That is, until the Mason alum–remembering Cramton’s teachings–thought to touch base with her overseas colleagues about what might have gone wrong. It turned out that four out of five e-mail attachments giving critical instructions did not make it past the Brazilians’ email firewall. “Everyone on the American side acknowledged, ‘Oh my god, this could have been so bad’”, Cramton relates.
If communication on remote teams is a “leaky process” (as Cramton terms it), then the first step toward plugging the holes is being aware of attribution bias. It sounds easier than it is. Because the bias is baked into the way we make sense of events, continual self-reminders are needed to keep it at bay. Whenever possible, it also helps for managers to apply curiosity and the benefit of the doubt. When remote employees seem not to be performing or behaving as expected, the situation and not the person may be to blame. Perhaps they weren’t properly briefed, are taking a sick day, or have been affected by an adverse weather event.
While newer technological tools can make it easier to convey contextual information, e.g. by sending automated alerts when a team member is out of the office, they can also be subject to the bias. “Our technology gives us so much information that we think we can see the truth in what it’s giving us. And often we do, but now and then we don’t,” Cramton says. Thanks to the digital revolution, “the pace at which we’re doing something is radically different. It’s easy for us to forget that not everyone is on the group text.”
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