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The Missing Ingredient in Your Remote Team: Gossip

If you want your remote team to share information more effectively, we’ve previously provided plenty of tips on technology that can help them keep connected — from apps that help you sync your contacts across devices to advanced tips for sharing docs with Google (s goog). But once you’ve got all the tech channels in place to share information seamlessly, you still may be missing one key ingredient for the smooth flow of ideas: the lubricating effects of gossip.

Known informally as “the watercooler effect,” the positive results of on-the-job socializing have been scientifically mapped by researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. At the lab, a team led by Alex “Sandy” Pentland is taking a high-tech approach to studying the effect, using wearable sociometric badges that can sense not only whether workers are sitting, standing or walking, but can also collect data on how often they’re in close personal interaction with colleagues and whether they’re excited, interested, etc.

The badges were worn by staff at an IT firm and a German bank to determine how social interaction affects job satisfaction and productivity. The results? The more people chatted the more work they did and the happier they were doing it. As MIT’s Technology Review explains in a write up of the work coming out of the Human Dynamics Lab, the value of “face time” is really in the gossip:

Employees on their breaks were not giving each other PowerPoint (s msft) presentations about operations research; they were just gossiping. “But what is gossip?” Pentland says. “Gossip is stories about what happened and what you did. So in other words, they’re trading tacit information. ‘I had this guy call up and he was so mad, and I …'”

It’s not just researchers who understand the value of sharing tacit information. Some companies actively manage it. Take Zappos, for example. Following the company’s acquisition by Amazon (s amzn), it has taken to asking workers how well they know randomly selected co-workers to ensure that growth doesn’t dilute the firm’s network of gossipy friendships.

And strong social ties may be valuable when it comes to group decision-making as well. Psychologists have proven many times over that group members tend to share information known by everyone already as opposed to information each member holds uniquely — hardly a recipe for quality decision-making. Part of the reason for this is social anxiety (high-status people share more) so it stands to reason that information sharing should also be improved by greater social bonding and increased trust among a team.

Of course, your team may be continents apart, so your ability to get them more face-to-face time is going to be limited. But that doesn’t mean the insights out of MIT are useless to you. Software studio Macadamian has team members as far away as Romania and California, but according to developer Dan Menard, gossip is still a good way to grease the flow of information between remote workers:

In a local setting, there are implicit relationships between team members. Maybe Abby is obsessed with coffee, or Ellis knows way too much about cars. It’s easy to casually pick up on these things when you sit near one another — Abby comes in every day with a reusable mug from a local coffee shop, and Ellis drives a car that’s older than he is.

You have to find ways to make these connections remotely, too. Luckily, it’s easier than it sounds. Start by talking to your remote team members every day. And I don’t just mean “include them in your scrum” — that goes without saying. I mean really talk to them. Find out how Romeo is celebrating his birthday this weekend, and remember who Tigran’s favorite hockey team is so that you can make fun of him when they lose to your city’s team.

When it comes to your remote workers, should you be making more of a point to start Monday off with “hey, what did you get up to this weekend?” rather than “so, do you have those numbers I asked for?”

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tracheotomy Bob

One Response to “The Missing Ingredient in Your Remote Team: Gossip”

  1. I honestly think the study is looking at the wrong things. The methods and timing of socialization in an office environment are completely different from those of remote workers. In the 11 years I’ve worked from home, of the times when I’ve been in a regular job or an ongoing freelance job, I’ve never thought that a lack of socializing was apparent. I’ve gotten to know my co-workers just as well, if not better, than I did when I worked in an office, and it also helps to have some of the various workplace annoyances weeded out. I never have to deal with missing lunch out of the community refrigerator or a co-worker leaving an empty coffee pot every day. The socialization becomes more organic, since it can be a few comments here and there in an email exchange or an IM conversation instead of bumping into someone in the kitchenette. If anything, remote workers are more inclined to socialize, I think, since they are often working in a void.