Could Distributed Teams Be a Source of Innovation?

Share this article

Distributed teams are changing the way of IT. Indisputable cost savings in countries with lower wages and an increasingly fail-safe internet access are turning remote teams into a bit of a unicorn for company owners. In one of our previous posts, we discussed why nearshoring is a stronger alternative than offshoring and hopefully planted the seed—that neighboring teams can be quite an asset. However, even next-door teams provoke concerns. How can you enhance their productivity? Creativity? Is it possible to generate innovative solutions via Skype chats only? These questions are complicated, but not without answers.

Remote teams view standard situations from different angles

Robert Jones, author of the book “Working Virtually: Challenges of Virtual Teams”, claims that the age of stable, rooted groups are nearing their logical end. Whilst continuous mutual work encourages teams to act as one organism, it’s not always a good creativity booster. The problem is obvious—people work together for too long. They think alike, talk alike and even order the same meals at the cafeteria. They are conditioned into falling back on established behavioral and ideological patterns, which work fine in a day-to-day routine, but can lead to problems in provoking innovative solutions and critical thinking.

A remote team, on the contrary, remains fresh in its flexibility and more often than not has a heterogeneous cultural background (in the word’s most microscopical sense). Their decision-making mechanisms differ slightly and together they can solve otherwise presumed no-win situations.

A remote team remains fresh in its flexibility and diversity.

Recently, there has been discussion around the so-called Facebook bias effect. It’s a well-known fact that Facebook prioritizes showing you things you have previously expressed an interest in.  The Wall Street Journal published an experiment where they enabled you to view a typical Facebook feed based on political preferences (among other things). The experiment illustrated the bias effect very clearly and went on to show how one very easily, even subconsciously, risked adopting a rather subjective, one-legged view of the world. This is another example of when a remote team can expand the borders of consciousness and present a diverse viewpoint.

Result: The mix of different cultures, thinking styles and backgrounds makes a perfect and innovative cocktail.

The collective mind of a remote team never sleeps

Time differences can play terrible tricks on your team’s productivity (this was partially covered when we recently discussed nearshoring). Overdue deadlines, foiled meetings—time zones are the perfect scapegoat to justify these failures. However, when it comes to innovation and creativity, time zones have an unexpected effect—one might even say they become the protagonist. Just imagine having the collective wisdom of a team that never sleeps! While one part of the team, let’s say, in New York calls it a day and jumps into their pyjamas, their extended unit in Europe, for example, rises, shines and continues the thought process where the Americans left off. It’s a non-stop creativity life cycle in action.

This pattern proved itself to be brilliant when the open source software community was created. Developers from all over the world voluntarily united their efforts and created amazing things such as the Linux operating system and the Mozilla web browser. Time differences, we salute you!  It’s a sure-fire way to turn remote teams into supernatural idea generators!

02time-zone

Result: The collective mind is always awake, available and ready to create.

Distance working creates calm, conflict-less atmosphere

When thinking about a local, permanent team, it’s tempting to draw an imaginary painting of an old married couple. It’s a beautiful story, really. But after spending their whole lives, tolerating each other’s drawbacks, any tiny disagreement is susceptible to a full-scale explosion. A team that has spent a lot of time together may be subjected to irreconcilable arguments. A remote team, on the other hand, can lead a peaceful coexistence with serenity and ease—they don’t encounter the problems that come with close proximity. That’s not to say that a remote team in any way would constitute the benchmark for happiness at work.

Lack of face-to-face communications may affect negatively on the team spirit. However, distance can sometimes be a good stress-reliever.

A remote team can be a good stress-reliever.

Any time the conflict is at breaking-point, you can easily mute the Skype, cool your savage tongue and then continue with polite discussions once you’ve cooled down. Why does this matter? Aren’t good thoughts born through conflict? Recent research argues that the best results in terms of creativity and innovation appear under moderate conflict levels. Calm atmospheres stimulate our brains better than yelling. Henceforth we can chalk up another score for the remote teams.

spacer_black

Result: From our point of view, the arguments for distributed teams come with a slightly stronger punch. We’re marking down three out of three points in their favor.

Is it that easy?

Definitely not. A remote team hides a lot of pitfalls. Among them, an inability to have a quick status update near the coffee machine or to promote your idea over an after-work beer. Still, when it comes to innovations, a distributed team can offer some amazing credit. Collecting brilliant ideas around the world and around the clock—isn’t this what we should all be striving for?