Working Together Apart
Technology is shrinking the world of business. As borders collapse, organizations increasingly require employees to collaborate with colleagues who are based in other countries — and who frequently speak different languages. Professor Judy Olson frames it this way: “Working with someone who is not co-located creates a lot of problems. It’s hard to coordinate across time zones and cultures, and we lose trust when we don’t know what other people are doing.”
Through her research, Professor Olson has found that distance has a direct impact on work, both in terms of productivity and worker satisfaction. Managers who supervise people remotely face a myriad of challenges. As Professor Olson observes, “Ultimately, it translates to someone having to stay up in the middle of the night if they want to have a real-time conversation.” Even then, the relationship differs dramatically from that of a manager who regularly checks up with a team in person and immediately works with team members to address challenges when they arise. Surprisingly, Professor Olson has found that the same loss of productivity and worker satisfaction occurs in projects involving people in different buildings or even on different floors.
Closing The Gap
The good news: Professor Olson’s 20 years of research into the topic provide a broad range of potential solutions. “We are studying how technologies like video conferencing, Skype, file and desk sharing, instant messaging and Google Apps are changing perceptions and enabling distant collaborators to better work together,” she says. Her work has also resulted in a free online assessment tool, called the Collaboration Success Wizard, through which companies can gauge the success of a long-distance collaboration. It is through tangible, practical support for companies and their personnel that Professor Olson is making her mark.