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What Do We Know about Proximity and Distance in Work Groups? A Legacy of Research 1

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Chapter 3
What Do We Know about Proximity and Distance in Work Groups?
A Legacy of Research1
Sara Kiesler and Jonathon N. Cummings
Summary
Significant increases in the geographic distribution of work have been touted widely. Yet a
large body of evidence suggests that close proximity is beneficial to relationships and group
interaction. We examine these benefits through the lens of research on the mere presence of
others, face-to-face communication, shared social settings, and frequency of spontaneous
communication. Technological and organizational remedies for the absence of these factors in
distributed work groups are popular but often problematic. We propose that communication
technology is more likely to be effective when groups are cohesive than when they are not, and
that structured management (as well as technology) is likely to be needed in groups lacking
cohesion.
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“Collaboration is a body contact sport.” The researcher who said this during an interview
believes, as many do, that people’s physical proximity has a tremendous impact on their ability
to work together. There is considerable support for this belief in the academic community as
well. Research harking back fifty years has demonstrated that close proximity between people is
associated with numerous emotional, cognitive, and behavioral changes that affect the work
process for the better. In this chapter, we describe these findings, discuss reasons why proximity
has been thought very good for group functioning, and consider how well people adapt to
working apart. Our purpose is to stimulate discussion on fundamental problems in the
psychology of distributed work and the management of distance.
What Is Proximity?
Proximity refers to the physical distance between people measured in units such as
inches, meters, or miles. In the research literature, however concepts like “proximity,” “physical
distance,“ “collocation,” and “dispersion” have been operationalized differently over time
(Monge & Kirste, 1980; Monge et al., 1985). Four and five decades ago, the dominant model of
group dynamics was the small group framework of Kurt Lewin and his students (see Forsyth,
1998, pp. 1-24). Groups studied within this framework typically were collocated. A social
psychologist in the 1960s, when speaking of proximity, might be talking about the seating
arrangements at a table of diners, a jury, or a committee (Strodtbeck & Hook, 1961; Howells &
Becker, 1962). During this same decade, the dominant model of organizations was driven by the
production framework (e.g., Thompson, 1967), in which the proximity of workers typically was
defined and dictated by work flow, task interdependence, and coordination needs (e.g., Kmetz,
1984).
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Recent views of work groups are more differentiated. Researchers are studying online
work groups, whose members meet rarely or never (see Walther, 2001 [chapter 10]; Moon and
Sproull, 2001 [chapter 16]) as well as teams that are collocated, but for reasons of mutual learning
and support rather than workflow (e.g., Liang, Moreland, Argote, 1995; Olson, Teasley, Covi, &
Olson, 2001 [chapter 5]). Theorists of organization have embraced the idea that work groups can
be strategically designed and distributed (or redistributed), to take advantage of changing
resources and opportunities, including social network relationships (e.g., Eccles & Crane, 1988).
Today, proximity might be defined in many ways—as the hallways and buildings separating
work group members, the number of different locations in which people work over time, or the
distance of members, units, or sites from headquarters (see, for example, Finholt, Sproull, &
Kiesler, 2001 [chapter 15]). A technologist developing an application for “virtual proximity”
might not care about users’ actual proximity at all, but rather about their perceived
proximity—there is even a journal on this topic called Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual
Environments (MIT Press).
Our review of research on proximity is necessarily dominated by researchers’ and
practitioners’ changing perspectives on groups, work, and technology rather than by a fixed
definition of proximity. For example, as many organizations have grown in size and complexity,
researchers have focused increasingly on how coworkers can collaborate in a distributed work
environment (Kraut, Egido, & Galegher, 1990).
Despite researchers’ changing perspectives on proximity over time, some rules of thumb
seem evident. First, it seems clear that closer proximity among people has beneficial, but
nonmonotonic, effects on interpersonal relations and group functioning. At nearly zero distance,
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people in most situations are very uncomfortable. Generally, we only want to be extremely close
to people we already like a lot (Freedman, 1975). People are most comfortable when they are a
few feet from others—the number varying a bit depending on culture, relationship, and task
(Sommer, 1969).
The first major response to greater distance occurs when people move, or are placed,
outside the presence of others. Once people are no longer collocated, then direct observation and
face-to-face conversation is difficult or impossible. A lack of observation and conversation poses
problems for many groups trying to make decisions or work together. Alternatively, the absence
of others aids people who want to work autonomously and without interruption, and those who
value privacy and personal space. People tend to feel more comfortable in private than public
spaces (e.g., Baum & Davis, 1980).
The second major response to greater distance occurs when people move or are placed,
not just out of one another’s immediate presence, but also sufficiently far away that the costs of
getting together are markedly increased. When employees work at locations more than
approximately 30 meters apart, they have much reduced daily contact and less frequent informal
communication (e.g., Allen, 1977; Kraut & Streeter, 1995). Physical separation from other
employees in daily life and work drastically reduces the likelihood of voluntary work
collaboration (Kraut, Fussell, Brennan, Siegel., 2001 [chapter 6] ).
We turn now to the mechanisms behind these two major responses to changes in
proximity. That is, why is it often important to be able to work in the presence of others, face-
to-face? Why might we need to share social settings and run into co-workers in the course of a
day or week? Are there any clear “wins” for group work at a distance? If we are to evaluate the
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benefits and costs of distributed work, we need to have the answers to these questions. We
discuss them below, and provide a summary table of concepts and findings (see Table 3-1).
Insert Table 3-1 about here
Effects of the Presence of Others
In the earliest studies of groups, researchers noted a “social facilitation” effect (for a review, see
Forsyth, 1998, pp.272-277).) That is, when people are in the presence of an audience,
coworkers, or even others doing unrelated tasks, their performance changes. When people are
working on well-learned or easy tasks, the presence of others increases their alertness,
motivation, and speed. However, when people are working on difficult or unlearned tasks, the
presence of others can be distracting, reduce accuracy, and increase feelings of stress (Zajonc,
1965).
The presence of others seems to increase a person’s concern with what others think and
increase their involvement with the group and the group’s activity. When people are in others’
presence, their heart rate and blood pressure increase, and they breathe more quickly (e.g.,
Walden & Forsyth, 1981). Members of the audience at a live performance enliven one another (an
effect simulated in the television laugh track). People in face-to-face meetings command one
another’s attention and feel involved with group tasks. The attention we pay to those present
tends to make our interactions with them more memorable than our interactions with those far
away (Latane, Liu, Nowak, & Bonevento, 1995).
The presence of others increases conformity through its effect on felt surveillance and
social pressure. In the famous Milgram experiments (e.g., 1974), when an experimenter and
subject were in the same room, about 65% of subjects obeyed the experimenter’s command to
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give 450 volt electronic shocks to a “poor learner” (a confederate). However, when the
experimenter left the room and gave his commands by telephone, only 20% were obedient to the
450-volt level. Milgram also tried changing the proximity of the subjects to the victim. When the
subjects were seated right next to the victim, only 40% of the subjects were obedient and shocked
the victim to the 450-volt level. Thus if the experimenter was close to the subjects, his authority
was strong, but if the victim was close to the subjects, then the victim’s protests over-rode the
demands of the experimenter. Bibb Latane and his colleagues developed a theory of social impact
that has, as one of its main premises, that people who are proximate have more impact (Latane,
1981). Proximity increases social impact, such as obeying someone’s request to sing loudly,
contribute to a charity, give a large tip, or do a favor or expend effort for the group. Likewise, in a
group, free riding (letting others do the work) is minimized when members are proximate and each
member’s contribution to the group project can be clearly identified (e.g., Hardy & Latane, 1986).
A similar observation has been made in game theoretic discussions of cooperation. The ability to
observe others directly increases the chance observers can see people cooperate and learn to
cooperate themselves (e.g., Macy, 1991).
Over time, the continued presence of others improves people’s feelings of familiarity
with them. This “mere exposure effect” (Zajonc, 1968) has been applied to the liking of people,
music, art, and food to which we have had repeated exposure. In a simple experiment, women
tasted good or awful liquids in the presence of other women. Between each tasting, some of the
women were moved from one tasting booth to another, such that each woman spent 10, 5, 2, 1,
or 0 trials with another woman. As predicted, the greater the exposure to another woman, the
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more the woman was liked – and the taste of the liquid was irrelevant (Saegert, Swap, & Zajonc,
1973).
In sum, research suggests that the presence of others increases attention, social impact,
and familiarity. These effects imply support for the dictum, “out of sight, out of mind,” with
several implications for distributed work. That is, distributed work that causes people to be out
of one another’s sight may lead also to their comparative inattention to coworkers, to a lower
level of effort, or to an increase in free riding. If getting work done depends on close attention to
others—say to make prompt corrections, to help out when work loads are heavy, or to receive
hand offs—this inattention, lack of effort, or free riding can lead to delays in the work (e.g.,
Herbsleb, Mockus, Finholt, & Grinter, 2000). Many people have multiple tasks to do and many
roles, with pulls on their attention from many directions. In the absence of coworkers, members
are likely to choose tasks with more immediate demands. On the other hand, some distributed
work might experience an improvement from the absence of others. For example, if task and
reward interdependence are low and the work is complex, working alone should be beneficial to
performance, as there would be little distraction from the presence of others and attention to their
needs. Journalists authoring articles for their newspapers are an example of such a situation.
Effects of Face-To-Face Communication
In studies of the mere presence of others, researchers prevent research participants from talking
with one another because communication always dominates the effects of mere presence. Only a
few moments of face-to-face discussion can have huge effects on an interaction. For instance, in
one of the earliest studies of competitive games, subjects who were instructed to “win as much as
you can for yourself” nevertheless made cooperative choices that helped both players when they
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could communicate with their partner. They cooperated on 71% of trials when they could
communicate whereas they cooperated on only 36% of the trials when they could not
communicate with their partner (Deutsch, 1958). Kerr and Kaufman-Gilliland (1994) showed
that group members who were given 5 minutes to discuss an investment game with one another
were far more likely to cooperate with the group than were group members who did not have this
opportunity – and the effect was not duplicated when group members heard the group discussion
but were not able to participate. Indeed there are over 100 studies showing the powerful effect of
face-to-face discussion on cooperative choices in social dilemmas (e.g., Orbell, Dawes, and van de
Kragt, 1988; see the review by Sally, 1995). These effects are thought to derive both from the
commitment people feel when they make social contracts face-to-face, and from increases in
group identity that accrue from face-to-face interaction.
Another important role of face-to-face discussion is in coordinating the efforts of a highly
interdependent group such as a jury, aircraft crew, coaching staff, or research team (Tushman,
1979; Weick & Roberts, 1993). Heavy use is made of discussion in research and development
teams where work is uncertain (e.g., Pelz & Andrews, 1966; Adams, 1976; Allen, 1977;
Tushman, 1977). For example, a research team will need to decide what is to be done and how
different people and subunits will work together. It will need to agree to a common definition of
what they are doing, plan how to hand off components of the work expeditiously, decide who
will take responsibility for meeting deadlines, and, in general, mesh the activities of the group. If
the group is small and members are physically proximate, effective coordination can occur
because the group can talk out problems together, keep all the details of the task in focus, and
organize work (e.g., Kameda, Stasson, Davis, Parks, & Zimmerman, 1992; Weldon, Jehn, &
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Pradhan, 1991). With discussion, group members develop deeper understandings of the task and
they have opportunities to observe and learn from one another, though typically they do not
reach theoretically maximum results (Steiner, 1972). (Coordination losses result in part from
group inefficiency in combining effort and from free riding [e.g., Ringelmann, 1913; Williams,
Harkins, & Latane, 1981].)
Face-to-face discussion also is a powerful tool to develop and maintain group culture,
authority, and tacit norms (Levitt & March, 1988; Nelson & Winter, 1982). Discussions improve
group commitment, socialization, and control. Discussion can overcome severe conflict among
team members, as in the case of one U.S. Olympic rowing team (Lenk, 1969). In spite of
animosity and disunity amongst the members, discussion led to the formation of coalitions that
decided to cooperate with others, and the team won the Olympic gold (see Carron, 1982). In sum,
research shows that face-to-face discussion has a strong impact on cooperation through its effects
on bonds, social contracts and group identity, and it is the most powerful medium known for
coordinating work within an interdependent group. To the degree that a distributed work group
lacks chances to talk face-to-face, it also lacks the most direct and easy route to cooperation and
coordination.
Effects of Shared Social Settings
Research in the tradition of “social ecology” (Barker, 1968) examines proximity through the
template of social settings. Social settings, such as offices, meeting rooms, cars, restaurants,
stores, and friends’ homes, are associated with behavioral norms, mental schemas, and even
scripts that sharply affect the way people act and the expectations they have of others. Mr.
Smith’s behaviors in a supermarket and in a bar are likely to differ far more across these two
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social settings than Mr. Smith’s behavior in the supermarket as compared with Mr. Brown’s
behavior in the supermarket. The strong impact of social settings in shaping behavior implies that
people with whom we share social settings also share similar expectations, experiences, and
perspectives.
Shared social settings promote the tendency to develop proprietary feelings about
physical spaces. People use cues from their own and others’ locations, such as functional
activities associated with the location, artifacts, physical boundary cues, and physical distance
signals to establish territories (Forsyth, 1998, pg. 320). Territories associated with social settings
help organize people’s social and work experiences (Edney, 1976).
The “shells” or boundaries that surround territories help groups avoid intrusion and
interruption; others tend not to invade these spaces even if they are in a public space or path
(Knowles, 1973). People start invading group spaces if the boundaries become fuzzy or if the
distance among group members becomes large (Cheyne & Efran, 1972). Marking territory not
only keeps others out but also increases feelings of ownership about the people in the territory.
Hence, territories contribute to group identity, and increase people’s satisfaction with their group
and their work (e.g., Newman, 1972; Baum & Valins, 1977; Edney & Uhlig, 1977). People with
contiguous territories tend to interact and to like one another (Moreland, 1987). Territories also
reinforce feelings of privacy, information sources, and ownership of artifacts within the territory.
In sum, research shows that sharing social settings in physical space affects the similarity
of people’s expectations and experiences, and influences the likelihood of establishing a shared
territory. These effects may be important in distributed work for two reasons. First, distance
among workers typically means that the shared social setting is at a more abstract or symbolic
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level than when workers are really in the same geographic location. Abstract similarities may be
useful for some purposes (see Frost & King, 2001 [chapter 1]), but abstractions may present
problems in actually accomplishing collaborative work. Second, the natural tendency to establish
local territories may interfere with co-workers’ identification with the larger collective, such as
the distributed project group. Ambiguity of membership reduces group identity (Brown & Wade,
1987; see also Armstrong and Cole, 2001 [chapter 7]).
Effects of Spontaneous Communication
Distances between offices and work locations possibly have their highest impact on group
functioning through their effect on informal, spontaneous communication opportunities
(Brockner & Swap, 1976; Ebbesen, Kjos, & Konecni, 1976, Hays, 1985; Kraut & Streeter, 1995;
Newcomb, 1981). That is, people who work in proximate offices run into one another at the
water cooler, coffee machine, and copier. They see one another come and go to meetings. They
meet in the lunch room. These casual encounters increase the convenience and pleasure of
communication, and they allow for unplanned and multipurpose interactions (see Kraut et al.,
2001 [chapter 6]; Nardi and Whittaker, 2001 [chapter 4]). Ongoing work progresses more
seamlessly when people communicate often and spontaneously. With spontaneous casual
communication, people can learn, informally, how one another’s work is going, anticipate each
other’s strengths and failings, monitor group progress, coordinate their actions, do favors for one
another, and come to the rescue at the last minute when things go wrong (Allen & Hauptman,
1990; Davenport, 1994; Trevino, Lengel & Daft, 1987; de Meyer, 1991, 1993; Weisband, 2001
[chapter 13 ]). When the distance between work places increases to about 30 meters or more, the
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amount of contact declines precipitously (Zipf, 1949; Allen, 1977; Kraut, Egido, and Galegher,
1988).
Casual contact is important to relationships. People tend to like and be influenced most
by people they encounter and talk with frequently (Festinger, Schachter & Back, 1950; Insko &
Wilson, 1977). People receive most of their social support from people who live and work
nearby and those with whom they are in most frequent contact (Wellman, 1992). Generally,
strong personal ties—ties that are frequent, reciprocal, and extending over multiple content
domains—are supported by spontaneous communication that occurs when people are in close
physical proximity. Once strong ties are established, they can be, and frequently are, sustained
using telephones or email (Wellman & Wortley, 1990).
Today, one hears many stories of people forging close work relationships at a distance
through electronic communication; some researchers argue that, over time, electronic
communication allows for sufficient spontaneous communication to support the development of
new close ties (Walther, 2001 [chapter 10]). However, the evidence thus far suggests that
physical proximity, with its many spurs to spontaneous communication, serves this purpose
better. Work collaborations are more likely to be created and sustained, and are likely to be more
satisfying and productive, than distributed (geographically distant) collaborations (e.g.,
Orlikowski, 1992; Smith et al., 1994; Kaut et al., 2001 [chapter 6]; Schunn et al., 2001 [chapter
17]).
In sum, research shows that the frequency of spontaneous, informal communication has
dramatic effects on the strength of social and work ties, and on the evolution of activities that
people do together and functions they serve for one another. These effects imply that distributed
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workers will have more difficulty forming close collaborations, dealing flexibly with one another,
and expanding the breadth of the relationships through a variety of unplanned mutual
experiences. It implies that strong ties will be more difficult to forge and to sustain in the
distributed than in the collocated work group. Hansen (1999) found that it was more difficult to
transfer complex knowledge from one location to another when ties were weak.
Remedies for distance
In centuries past, traders, sailors, explorers, and diplomats maintained relationships with distant
colleagues, coworkers, sponsors, and supervisors (Frost & King, 2001 [chapter 1; O’Leary,
Orlikowski, & Yates, 2001 [chapter 2]). Today’s group and organization, however, has far more
options to support distributed group work and remedy problems of distance.
Communication Technology
Networked communication technologies, especially email and telephone, seem to offer a
substitute for face-to-face communication (e.g., Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). In this regard, many
researchers have examined whether mediated communication differs from face-to-face
communication (e.g., De Meyer, 1991; Kraut, Galegher, & Egido, 1990; McGuire, Kiesler, Siegel,
1987; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986; see Walther, 2001 [chapter 10]). In
laboratory studies during the past two decades, researchers typically compared participants who
made decisions or solved problems in the presence of others and face-to-face, or separated, using
email or other technology to communicate. In studies outside the laboratory, researchers
typically examined the relationship of the amount of mediated communication use with some
outcome variable such as work satisfaction or performance.
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Many consistent communication benefits and costs have been demonstrated in the use of
mediated communication. Technologies like the wired and cell telephone are awkward for group
conversation but facilitate many other work tasks at a distance, such as scheduling, interviewing,
talking over a problem, and touching base (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). Email is convenient
for including many people in consideration of a plan or document, for carrying on multiple
discussions asynchronously, for staying in touch, and for encouraging participation in group
decisions (Kiesler & Sproull, 1991).
On the negative side, as many of us have discovered, email seems to encourage ever more
communication and therefore is time consuming. Theories such as social presence and media
richness posit large costs to mediated communications because of their low bandwidth (e.g., Daft
& Lengel, 1984; 1986; Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). All mediated communications constrain
backchannel feedback to promote mutual understanding, and they limit paralinguistic cues to
soften or emphasize verbal information (see Krauss, Garlock, Bricker, & McMahon, 1977).
Mediated communications also may discourage effective conversational strategies, such as small
talk that precedes and personalizes one person helping out another, or Socratic questioning in
which one person leads another to adopt a new idea, or implicit learning of social conventions
(see these points developed in Mark, 2001 [chapter 11] , and Nardi and Whittaker, 2001 [chapter
4]). Perhaps as important, mediated communications do not facilitate companionship – people
doing things together. It is still hard to attend a conference or have a meal or go on a bike ride with
someone by telephone or email.
Nonetheless, people seem able to adapt these technologies to their activities over time.
Some distributed groups develop a strong group identity despite the limitations of email
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(Walther, 2001[chapter 10; Armstrong & Peter, 2001 [chapter 7, addendum]). We do not know,
however, whether long-term collaborations, in these instances, depend on at least occasional face-
to-face contact (see, for example, Schunn et al., 2001 [chapter 17]). The strongest and most active
collaborations seem still to be proximate ones.
In sum, many distributed work groups adapt their interactions well to today’s
communication technologies. These technologies allow for the exchange of work information
without face-to-face communication and for spontaneous communication. However, because of
the lack of real and perceived presence of others and lack of shared social setting, these
technologies do not necessarily encourage communication. The style of communication in
electronically-sustained work groups is likely to be somewhat less mutually attentive, less
companionable, less frequent, and more effortful than when the team is nearby and talking face-
to-face. Computer-based technology today allows distant co-workers to exchange an ever-
increasing variety of information—documents, funds, drawings, advice, schedules, votes, and so
on. It has been shown that the mediated exchange of information about coworkers’ skill can be
effective in promoting joint performance as when the coworkers are actually trained together
(Moreland & Myaskovsky, 2000). However, it remains unclear how well these technologies can
sustain ongoing work that requires close collaboration. One possibility, which we address at the
end of this chapter, is that the use of communication technology is likely to be most successful
when work groups have already forged close relationships, so that the existing feelings of alliance
or commitment sustain motivation.
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Structured Management
In recent decades, practitioners and scholars have argued that work can be designed for the
situation (e.g., Hackman & Oldham, 1980; Wageman, 1995). In software development, for
example, modularization or task decomposition (Parnas, 1972) rationalizes the work, and
standard procedures for version control prevent conflicts in code. Task decomposition and
version controls help people understand their goals and those of others, reduce errors, and reduce
the need to redo work.
Structured management approaches have been applied to distributed work, as well,
because they are theoretically an efficient alternative to face-to-face and spontaneous
communication under conditions of complexity and uncertainty (Aldrich, 1979; Downs, 1967;
Cyert & March, 1963; March & Simon, 1958). Instead of having to talk repeatedly about what
each person should do, for instance, task decomposition allows a team to divide its work into
manageable chunks. The members of the group, then, can work autonomously and hand over
work according to a standard procedure. It should not be surprising, therefore, to find that recent
solutions to effective teamwork in distributed software development have emphasized these
methods (Moon and Sproull, 2001 [chapter 16]).
Task decomposition and standard procedures for administration can promote autonomy
and independence of decision making, which, in turn, can reduce role ambiguity and increase local
innovativeness (Johnson et al., 1998). Evidence from an extensive comparison of automotive
product development teams suggests that one reason Japanese teams did well is that the
managers of these teams had greater authority and independence than American and European
managers did (Clark, Chew, & Fujimoto, 1987). In distributed software development, each phase
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of the work cycle from planning through operation and maintenance can be done independently
but deliverables are subject to review before they are passed on. Thus it is specified what is being
delivered at each stage and how the deliverables can be tested or scrutinized to ensure that they
do what they are supposed to do. All official project documents also may be under review. As
well, groups can adopt naming conventions that must be adhered to project-wide. Perhaps they
also agree that code cannot be written without design reviews, designs cannot be tested before
design walk-throughs, changes cannot be made without issuing a modification request, no piece of
code goes to system test without an integration test.
Structured management is far from a panacea, however. Grinter, Herbsleb, and Perry
(1999), in their recent study of distributed R & D, describe problems of coordination, trust, and
information exchange in projects that used four different modularization designs—organization
around functional areas, products, customers, or process steps. All of these projects experienced
problems in coordination, and in each of the projects, workers at distributed sites often lacked the
expertise they needed to do their work. For example, when work was distributed by functional
area, employees at each site did not have critical knowledge about other functional areas. Another
problem was that employees at sites that were distant from the core work site missed much of
the spontaneous communication that moved the work forward:
For satellite sites. . . it is difficult not to be constantly surprised. Not having
access to the corridor conversations, people at remote sites may have no clue about what
is happening until a decision has formally been made. Potentially serious problems flow
from this. For one, decisions that seem relatively unimportant to the central site may
affect the satellite in significant ways, simply because the issues are not obvious to the
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‘center.’ Even when there is no single ‘killer’ consequence of a decision, the cumulative
effect of many surprises can be substantial. As one manager of a satellite site remarked, it
is as if you are ‘fighting upstream instead of going with the flow.
As this study shows, structured management reduces some of the uncertainty of
distributed work, but does not solve all the problems of distance. Moreover, formalization itself
can place an extra burden on the group by increasing the need for a coordination infrastructure:
clerical and management staff, training, reporting, and archiving. The care and feeding of
bureaucracy can become more significant to employees than the ultimate goals they are supposed
to accomplish Management sometimes uses standardization and rationalization of tasks to
increase control, which can sap motivation. Structured management also might impede innovation
by limiting the options explored by a work group..
Another disadvantage of structured management as a coordination strategy is that it can
depersonalize interaction. For instance, with task decomposition, team members, or subgroups
on the team, have different roles. Team members or subgroups working on their own tasks tend
to develop divergent perspectives and habits of work (e.g., Brewer & Kramer, 1985; Tajfel,
1982). They may have little opportunity and eagerness to learn from others in the team,
impeding the exchange of expertise and discovery (Newcomb, 1961; Faunce, 1958; Festinger,
Schachter, & Back, 1950; Monge & Kirste, 1980; Jablin, Putnam, Roberts, & Porter 1986). Task
decomposition can exacerbate demographic or skill differences that existed at the start (Jablin,
1979; Sykes, Larntz, & Fox, 1976; Monge, Rothman, Eisenberg, Miller, & Kirste, 1985).
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A Hypothesis
Good work group performance often depends on (a) coordination of the individual efforts of
members, and (b) cohesiveness of the group. Coordination and cohesiveness seem particularly
important when the work is complex and “disjunctive”—where everyone in the group must solve
a problem and agree to a single solution—but other work tasks also benefit from coordination and
cohesiveness (for example, voting on a decision, in which each person’s contribution adds
legitimacy to the whole). Distributed work seems prone to both coordination and cohesiveness
losses for the reasons we have reviewed and summarized in Table 3-1.
Furthermore, many distributed groups, at the outset, are likely to suffer not just from
physical distance but also from social distance—a lack of group identity, or social diversity of
the membership (Hinds & Bailey, 2000). For example, the decision to create a distributed work
group might have been motivated by employees’ geographic dispersion. With geographic
dispersion often comes social and cultural diversity. Social and cultural diversity can make it
harder for people to form friendships and to organize themselves, and can increase relationship
conflict in groups (Orlikowski, 1992; Olson & Teasley, 1996; Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999;
Smith et al., 1994); Jackson, May & Whitney, 1995; Moreland et al., 1996; see Mannix, Griffith,
& Neale, 2001 [chapter 9]).
Task or cognitive diversity may result also when people with appropriate expertise,
organizational experience, or credentials of people to do the work are geographically dispersed.
Diversity in skill or technical background does not always boost performance in groups (Tziner
& Eden, 1985), but management often believes that a mix of expertise increases creativity and
know-how devoted to the task (Pelz & Andrews, 1966; Peterson & Nemeth, 1996). However, to
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integrate this diverse expertise, the group must resolve differences of opinion, perspective, and
expectations. Distributed work groups might do this poorly (e.g., Williams & O’Reilly, 1998;
Mannix et al., 2001 [chapter 9]). Certainly they are less likely to try when they begin as
strangers or with a strong sense of social distance (Gruenfeld, Mannix, Williams, & Neale,1996).
We hypothesize that the effectiveness of remedies for physical distance in work groups
will depend on the degree of existing social distance or cohesion in the group. If existing cohesion
is high, that is, if the work group members have a strong commitment to the group or to one
another, then mediated communication technologies provide a plausible remedy for the lack of
close physical proximity. Because the members are committed to the group’s work, cohesiveness
and motivation to keep in touch are less of a problem than when there is high social distance
among members. Members with high commitment can use technology spontaneously to
coordinate their work. On the other hand, if cohesion is low, and members do not have a
commitment to the group, then the distributed work group faces problems not just of
coordination but also of cohesiveness. It seems unlikely that email and other communication
technologies would provide a sufficient remedy for a lack of cohesiveness and common group
identity. Concerted attempts by some group members might increase the closeness of the group
if the task had to be accomplished, but delays would be expected as the group worked through
conflict.
We propose that structured management (in addition to the use of technology) may be a
necessary (but possibly insufficient) remedy to the lack of physical proximity when a group
lacks cohesion. The research reported by Moon and Sproull (2001 [chapter 16]) suggests that if
distributed work can be modularized, and if standardized procedures for coordination can be
96
imposed, then social distance and a lack of cohesion may matter less to the group. Since the
members of the group are comparatively autonomous and working within a clear structure,
members do not need to adjust all of their work to the ideas of others. They do not need to be
friends. They can use communication technology to chat with any group member with whom
they have a common interest, but they need not participate in group decision making.
In short, we propose that technology will help cohesive distributed groups manage
distance but that structured management, as well, will be needed in distributed groups that lack
social cohesion. Other factors will need to be considered as well, of course. For example, Grinter,
Herbsleb, and Perry (1999) argue that the selection of the appropriate division of labor should be
driven by the hardest coordination problem in the project.
Conclusion
In this chapter, we have reviewed research on physical distance, noting the reasons why the
presence of others, face-to-face communication, shared social settings, and frequent informal
communication benefit relationships and group functioning. We have discussed the implications
for distributed work groups, and the use of communication technology and structured
management to address the challenges. We hope to encourage researchers to explore these
possibilities.
It seems evident that far more research has been done on the ramifications of proximity
than on its causes. Distributed work does not drop from the sky upon hapless groups. Surely it
matters whether the antecedents of our collocation or great distance include chance, management
decision, personal choice, technology investment, the architecture of the task, or side effects of
some other problem such as resource dependence. The absence of an analysis of antecedents in
97
the literature is worrisome and probably leads us to reify and oversimplify the meaning of
proximity and distance in distributed groups. A fruitful task for the future would be a better
understanding of the factors that bring us to be engaged in proximate or distributed work.
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Endnotes
1 We gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation (#IIS-
9872996) and comments by members of the workshop, especially Pamela Hinds, Janet Fulk,
Susan Fussell, and John L. King.
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