Thanks to the Internet, co-workers who scattered across the globe can collaborate on projects. E-mail is the glue that holds the work team together, allowing members to exchange ideas, come up with solutions, and move things ahead. At least that's the theory.
In fact, geographically scattered workers have a tough time communicating well by e-mail. They take shortcuts, make incorrect assumptions, fail to correct co-workers' erroneous conclusions, and often misinterpret -- or forget -- what was in messages. Then, they're quick to blame the problems that arise on one another rather than on the circumstances of distance and technology. That results in an us-vs.-them attitude, whether colleagues are separated by a few miles or by an ocean.
As they rely on technology to hold their globally expanding teams together, companies large and small are finding that it's much more difficult for co-workers to find common ground when they're not literally standing on common ground. So says Catherine Durnell Cramton, who has a PhD in organizational behavior and teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She's one of a handful of researchers studying the problems that geographically dispersed workers have in collaborating by e-mail. "We have illusions about it," she says. "In reality, it's a very leaky process."
The causes of distant co-workers' communication problems seem so basic that it's not apparent why they merit study at all -- until you consider the damage they cause to relationships, to progress on the work at hand, and, presumably, to a company's coffers. According to Cramton's research -- with dispersed graduate student "work teams" and among some of the high-tech companies in the university's Northern Virginia neighborhood -- there are several main pitfalls.
People often don't provide complete information... ...and when they do, those on the receiving end may not remember it. Communicating by computer takes more effort and time than communicating in person. Rather than do all the extra typing to convey the nuances that would be obvious face-to-face (from tone of voice, facial expression, etc.), many people just skip it. At the same time, Cramton's research showed that people often don't remember information -- even key information -- sent to them. It's not uncommon for a co-worker to have no memory of receiving an e-mail, even though he opened it and, presumably, read it. A big factor in both the shortcuts and memory lapses: what Cramton calls "cognitive overload."
Among Cramton's research subjects was a group of engineers that carried out a discussion via e-mail using the "reply" button. Some people on the mailing list, however, didn't read all the way through the long chain of e-mails and missed information that their colleagues assumed they had seen. Also, some members of the group deleted the e-mail when they saw the outdated subject line, not realizing new information had been added.
A worker will sometimes share information with only part of the team. Perhaps assuming that the information will be passed on, an employee might send it only to those deemed most receptive. Alternately, the worker may have believed it was sent to everybody when technical glitches actually prevented it from getting through. Sharing knowledge unequally means those left out are prone to arriving at the the wrong conclusions about the pace and progress of a project. It also can lead to cliques as well as to disaffection among those who aren't kept in the loop.
Writers assume that what matters to them is significant to their readers. They don't make it clear which part of their message, or which messages, they consider the most important. An example from Cramton's research: A partner in a small consulting firm sent a six-paragraph e-mail to his three partners about the firm's new association with a larger consulting company. Among his suggestions was a proposal that the partners be highlighted as subject-matter experts on the larger company's Web page. One partner responded, "Good plan." Yet, he was outraged when his photo and information appeared on the other company's Web site. "Good plan" hadn't referred to that part of the e-mail.
Some people have access to faster, better technology than others. A scattered work team is having an e-mail chat, and the woman in Australia is always sending comments long after the rest of the team has moved on to a new topic. It seems obvious that the Australian colleague isn't following the conversation as rapidly as everyone else, no doubt because of the time difference with the other side of the world. Right? Unfortunately, such conclusions weren't obvious to her colleagues, according to Cramton's research, from which this example was drawn. Instead, team members assumed the woman was less conscientious and not paying attention. It's a small illustration of a bigger problem that Cramton found: It's much easier for scattered work teams to foster resentment, rather than trust, through e-mail.
Colleagues communicating by e-mail often misinterpret silence. It could mean agreement, disagreement, or indifference. Maybe the message never arrived. Maybe it's a holiday weekend in the country where the recipient is working. Maybe the recipient didn't realize you wanted a response. Maybe the recipient doesn't know how to respond. Cramton found that silence due to technical problems or faulty information was sometimes interpreted as intentional nonparticipation. As in the example of the Australia-based worker, co-workers are more quick to assume the other person, rather than the situation, is to blame. These negative assumptions about a co-worker tended to stick, even when later shown to be faulty.
"One of the things that is interesting to me is how invisible most of these pitfalls of e-mail communication and dispersed collaboration are to people when they are in the middle of them," Cramton says. "Yet they are so destructive to relationships. It's like there are trapdoors associated with e-mail communication and working across distance that well-meaning people fall through."
Research on the issue has been under way only for about five years. Cramton expects that, as it progresses, solutions will evolve, too. Based on her work so far, she recommends the following:
* Take pains to explore in advance potential differences in team members' local situations, including the communications infrastructure, vacation and holiday schedule, and working hours. Keep this information in a database accessible to everyone.
* Everyone on the team should get together for a face-to-face meeting at least once in the beginning of the project. It will build relationships and trust.
Be quick to give your remote colleague the benefit of the doubt.
* Send every e-mail to everyone. It helps establish mutual knowledge and avoid cliques.
* Establish a clear understanding of how often teammates will check for messages and respond to them.
* Provide prompt feedback to messages. Sometimes, the response will be a simple "Got it." That way the sender knows the e-mail got through.
* Questions that need to be addressed by a remote partner should be highlighted to make them they're instantly apparent.
Because the pitfalls, but not the ramifications, of e-mail communication among work teams are invisible, Cramton's former colleagues at Stanford University said she had a "moral responsibility" to spread the word. In the global economy, she's likely to be improving not only workers' relationships, but their company's profits.
Theresa Forsman in New York
Edited by Robin J. Phillips