A. People who work in the office
B. People who work remotely
If you picked A, you might be as surprised as the investment firm I worked with recently, which found in reviewing results of a 360-degree feedback process that the answer was, in fact, B.
The team members who were not in the same location with their leaders were more engaged and committed — and rated the same leader higher — than team members sitting right nearby. While the differences were not enormous (a couple of tenths of a point in both categories), they were enough to provoke some interesting speculations as to why this might be happening.
It made perfect sense to me, though. Here is why:
Proximity breeds complacency. I’ve worked with leaders who sit in the same office with those they manage but go for weeks without having any substantive face-time with them. In fact they may use e-mail as their primary source of communication when they sit less than 50 feet away. It’s even worse if they sit in different parts of a building — or all the way on another floor. This is not to say that these leaders are in any way lazy — just that because the possibility of communicating is so easy, it is so often taken for granted.
Absence makes people try harder to connect. When I managed a team of professionals in nine different locations, I made a point of deliberately reaching out to each of them by phone at least once a week, and frequently more often. I’m not an anomaly here. Most leaders I work with make an extra effort to stay connected to those they don’t ordinarily run into. They can see that taking even a few minutes to talk about what’s happening in their respective worlds before addressing the tasks at hand makes a difference in maintaining the connection with a colleague. What’s more, because they have to make an effort to make contact, these leaders can be much more concentrated in their attention to each person and tend to be more conscious of the way they express their authority.
Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools. Because leaders of far-flung teams have to use videoconferencing, instant messaging, e-mail, voicemail, and yes, the telephone, to make contact, they become proficient in multiple forms of communication, an advantage in leadership that their traditional counterparts could well develop but not so automatically.
Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together. Having had to make such an effort to get the team together, these leaders naturally want to make the best use of their precious time. They take care to filter out as many distractions as possible so they can focus on the work to be done together. They also typically spend more than an ordinary work day together, socializing at planned luncheons, dinners, and activities. This level of focused attention is hard to replicate day to day. I’ve heard from some employees who work near their bosses on teams whose other members work elsewhere that the most time they spend with their leader is when the others come in for such meetings.
None of this is to say that working remotely is better than coming to the office. Or that virtual teams are better than traditional ones. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that they are exactly the same this regard: Someone working in the same office with their leader needs just as much effective communication as someone located in a different office. It’s just that, ironically, they’re less likely to get it.