Long-Distance Collaboration: Some Keys to More Productive Teams

July 20, 2016

By Jay Wrolstad

Businesswoman looking at team of businesspeople in miniature

When it comes to teamwork, familiarity breeds productivity, rather than contempt.

Establishing such affinity is increasingly important given the rising number of virtual project teams comprising far-flung members who all must remain on the same page.

Recent Cornell research examining collaboration among geographically dispersed academics from multiple universities suggests that smaller groups accomplish more because fewer connections allow members to interact more frequently and intimately, creating a more cohesive group.

The study is titled “Team Member’s Centrality, Cohesion, Conflict, and Performance in Multi-University Geographically Distributed Project Teams,” and authored by Alex M. Susskind, associate professor of food and beverage management, and Peggy Odom-Reed, lecturer in hospitality leadership, at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration (SHA).

Limited Interaction

“The key is having a cohesive team and a limited number contacts in the communication network,” Susskind says. “This allows team members to benefit from the strength and relationships within their team and not have their team interactions diluted by a larger base of network contacts.”

At the same time, those at the team hub may be pulled in many different directions as a result of their strong connections in the network, he says.

“We have a limit on how many people we can have meaningful interactions with; hence smaller networks in this study were associated with higher levels of individual performance.”

Peggy Odom-Reed and Susskind research quote image1The Study

Researchers focused on the work done by teams from eleven universities on a nationwide research project conducted by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) in collaboration with six national hotel chains.

Researchers collected the network members’ perceptions of team cohesion and conflict during the first three months of the 14-month project, and again during the last four months.

They found that work groups that communicate frequently, both internally and externally, are more productive than groups with fewer interactions, suggesting that network communication and information flow are critical parts of the team process.

And, as team members established stronger bonds over the course of completing the project, individual performance improved as well. There was a strong negative connection between conflict experienced during the project and team-member cohesion.

Peggy Odom-Reed and Susskind research quote image2“Reported conflict in teams did not demonstrate a statistically significant negative relationship with team member performance as expected in the study, but changes in cohesion were strongly and inversely related to changes in conflict, showing that over time increased levels of cohesion were associated with decreases in conflict,” Susskind says. “Research has shown that a certain amount of conflict is beneficial in teams, but how much exactly is too much conflict, I don’t precisely know.”

Conclusion

The research resulted in three significant findings regarding how individuals engage in a team network:

  • Team unity and productivity suffer when individuals interact with members in the network outside their immediate team. Although having unique ties outside one’s team provides access to new information, these links may reduce members’ attachment to their group.
  • As project teams develop over time and team members develop familiarity with each other, there is less conflict about the project work.
  • Individual feelings of “closeness” and satisfaction with team members improves individual-level performance in the team.

This study will be published in Communication Research, published by Sage. The online-first version is available at crx.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/01/28/0093650215626972.abstract.

Faculty baseball card - Peggy Odom-Reed

Alex Susskind information

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