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Cosmic Conference 2021 - Closing Debate: Are Remote Teams Better?

To wrap up our second annual Cosmic Conference, we hosted a debate titled ‘Are Remote Teams Better?’ where Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, was joined by three guests who shared their insights around remote teams.

In this year’s last panel, we debated the topic of remote teams and the importance of the “workplace”. Speakers discussed the arguments for or against co-location citing lessons learned from their own research or experiences. Marilyn read out the 5 motions and asked our panelists to state whether they are for or against the motion, inviting them to cite reasons and flip the mic on each other.

Watch the full debate here:

About the Speakers

  • Paul McKinlay is VP of Communications and Remote Working at Cimpress, parent company to e-commerce brands like Vistaprint. He’s been leading employee communications, change, engagement and L&D teams both in-house and in agency for over twenty years.

  • Jose Santos, a returning debate guest, is an Affiliated Professor of Practice in Global Management. After spending 20 years in the managerial world, Joe moved from Italy to INSEAD and devoted himself to scholarly work, a dream from his youth. Joe’s research and teaching focuses on the management of multinational enterprise, particularly on the management of global integration and global innovation.

  • Liam Martin is a serial entrepreneur and avid remote work proponent who runs ​Time Doctor​, a popular time tracking and productivity software platform, and ​, for hiring remote staff​. He is also a co-organizer of the world's largest remote work conference — ​Running Remote​.

Motion 1: Communications & Coordination

Remote teams do not communicate and coordinate as effectively as co-located teams. That is because remote increases the need for deliberate actions towards staying connected with other team members.

Marilyn kickstarted this debate off with this motion where Marilyn said, “Coordination in teams is a function of knowledge sharing and communication. In a survey conducted by Cosmic Centaurs in June 2021 around distributed teams, 42% of survey respondents reported that the amount of communication they have with their team increased and became overwhelming during the global pandemic."

Liam was the first to share his opinion saying, “I disagree with the premise of the question. The variable that I'm concerned about is the assumption that more communication and collaboration is always the right direction inside of any team, this was built out of on-premise in office environments. Remote teams have recognized it's not an all you can eat buffet with regards to collaboration, but an a la carte method because you don't have to pay that price of everyone commuting every single day in order to have that form of collaboration. To me, a lot of the time we figure out how we can minimize the amount of collaboration and make it a lot more productive so that we can focus everyone on achieving deep work throughout their workday. My friend, Cal Newport has written a fantastic book on that subject and anyone that has their own team should definitely read it. His belief is that if you can optimize everyone towards doing deep and insightful work, that's what's going to actually move your company forward, not ironically, more collaboration.”

Joe, who agreed with the general sense, went on to qualify it. “We use the word team too loosely. We call everything teams. We see two, three people and we call it a team. We need to distinguish between group work, which is an aggregation of individual work towards a certain task and what I would call true teamwork, which is an emergence. If teamwork is an emergence, meaning it is impossible to ascertain what contribution each person gave to the team, then absolutely that's one of the big limitations of being remote. My channel thesis is that if true teamwork is what you're looking for, remote work doesn't do it. If what you're looking for is group work, which is the aggregation of individual work, then remote teams are fine and I agree with Liam. It really depends on the moment, the task at hand and the allocation of tasks to the people in the team.”

Joe continued, "There's a different deeper reason, that is when we use technology to mediate communication and coordination, what we're actually doing is substituting time for space. For example, we're meeting at a certain time while in the past, we would properly meet in a room. Remote technology can substitute time for space, but technology cannot really substitute time for place. I'm in Lisbon and there's no way you get to understand where you are unless you're here. Time and technology do not substitute for place. When we contribute to a team, a lot of our contribution comes from our place, a place where we are and the context where we live.”

Similar to Joe, Paul shared his agreement with the motion and said, “I agree that without deliberate actions towards staying connected, remote teams can struggle. I have two points to call out; First, teams can be successful when working a hundred percent in-person or a hundred percent remote if they have great leaders, great people, a great plan, and they execute that plan really well. If one or more of those things are missing, problems arise wherever people are working. I don't think success is about whether people are remote or not.

Second, in the last 15 months we've unleashed millions of remote working newbies, including me. With zero planning time, it's been carnage and amazing in equal proportion, sometimes at the same time. Companies like ours, who made an early decision to make remote permanent, have made huge strides and progress in creating a model and helping team members to be successful. I agree that remote creates the need for deliberate focus on connection but remote also exposes the need for a new and different set of skills and you were talking about that in the last conversation which I really enjoyed and seconded Erin Maya's book that’s absolutely fantastic. When you see poor communication or ineffective coordination in a team, you should diagnose far deeper than whether this team is remote or not remote. If you unleashed a new hire in an office with no bad, no context, no colleagues, no laptop, no rule book, you get the results that you designed for. You wouldn't do that if you were based in an office, why would you do that to a remote team member?”

Motion 2: Mutual Knowledge

Remote teams have weaker mutual knowledge than co-located teams. Effective communication and knowledge sharing can become a daunting task in virtual settings because of the nature of both the virtual context and the technology used to support it.

Mutual knowledge is defined as knowledge that is shared and known to be shared and we know distributed teams perform better when they have more mutual knowledge. With such a concept being of high importance, Marilyn shared the second motion, asking panelists to share whether they agree or disagree and provide context.

Disagreeing with this motion, Paul explained, “I would use Joe’s last point about location as a huge argument in favor of remote teams. You can bring people together to your team from all over the world with all of those different contexts and apply it to your problem. That kind of cognitive dissonance is so good for teams. I think this motion is easily debunked. In a co-located setting a new hire in Barcelona is unlikely to ever befriend a team member in Boston because of the construct of the office and the way relationships work. Remote brings people closer together and removes walls and distance. We've also leveled the playing field for our team members. We used to be far more US-centric than we are today. We used to be far more than 10 people in a room and one person on a screen. We all know now how hideous that experience is and we've woken up to that. In many ways this feels harder because of all the new possibilities though, our brains can hardly handle the number of tools and the magnitude of the possibility. Then this becomes a human question: are we even prepared to continue to focus on building these relationships? Or is it too overwhelming? I think the solution, as with all solutions, starts with a desired outcome, in this case, ensuring teams see the opportunity and have the tools and time to foster great relationships, which leads to great work.”

Unlike Paul, Joe agreed that remote teams struggle with mutual knowledge. He shared, “That's a limitation of technology and not of human nature. What makes us human is partially that most of what we know cannot be codified. Of course, if you're doing a task like producing apps or doing some software work, then it's relatively easy that your knowledge is mostly codifiable. In that sense, of course you can be around the world, use people around the world and mostly do group work carefully planned, like Paul said. But what about breakthrough innovations? What about the general management of companies, leading movements and absolute requirement of context and specific knowledge that is not articulable and not codifiable. The most important human knowledge that we call specific tacit is the collective knowledge that people call culture. Therefore we have to think how my contribution to the team is actually not my individual contribution, a characteristic of individualistic cultures like the Anglo-Saxon cultures. Am I bringing part of the context that I’m in to my contribution, which is a non individualistic and systematic view of our knowledge and work. Be careful because if the most valuable knowledge you bring is non codifiable and inarticulable, then you have a problem and therefore, mutual knowledge becomes a real problem. Let alone the sharing and melding of uncommon knowledge, which is even worse. Because I'm only valuable to a team if what I know is different from what the other people know, but most of my uncommon knowledge is place specific, it's history specific, I can't bring that to a team if I can’t say it and write it.”

“ The most important human knowledge that we call specific tacit is the collective knowledge that people call culture. “

After asking Liam to share his thoughts from his previous experiences, he said, “GitLab is a perfect example of this. I have never worked in an office, however, recently I've been looking a lot more at the in-office environment. One of the things that's really jumped out at me is the lack of sharing of knowledge. That sacred knowledge that in remote teams, at least successful ones, is freely shared because everyone knows that's how you move the organization forward versus the desire of the individual to be able to retain that sacred knowledge so that they're unfireable inside of their organizations. Even if you take the context of, let's say a kitchen at a restaurant, the cook wouldn't protect the recipe from the rest of the people in the kitchen. They would give that information freely. But in office environments, that's sometimes not the case. They want to be able to hold on to that information because it gives them some level of leverage. Inside of successful remote teams, and GitLab is a perfect example of this, everything is built into process documentation. They have the largest remote work process document that's open sourced on planet Earth of 8,000 pages. Anyone can access it and if you had all that information, you could run GitLab. Large corporations recognize this. The forcing function that remote provides is that you must produce all of this documentation because you don't have that co-location. The documentation has to be easy to understand by other people and be consumable in a digital format. If you've done that, mutual knowledge isn't necessarily a problem.”

To clarify his thoughts even more, Liam gave an example, “All of our meetings are documented. At the end of every single meeting, if it's synchronous, meaning if it's over a zoom call, we write down all of the major issues that we addressed and what the conclusions of those issues were and they're posted to everyone inside of our organization. That's really not done as a practice in a lot of companies. It’s so refreshing for a lot of team members that are brand new to our company. They come in and say, but what do you mean? I can see everything. Yes, you can see everything inside of our organization so that you don't have any informational disadvantage from any other team member, including the CEO of the company. That's something that is difficult for people to figure out. It's uncomfortable, but once you overcome that, your organization moves a lot faster.”

To comment on what Liam shared, Joe said, “Officeless companies do exist and will exist in particular lines of business. Even in those lines of businesses, breakthrough innovation will come because two or three people meet and something happens that wasn't supposed to happen, some serendipitous moment. That's when breakthrough innovation occurs and that will not occur remotely. At least I've been looking for it for 25 years and I haven't found one.”

Motion 3: Psychological Safety

Remote teams have less psychological safety than co-located teams. Psychological safety is harder to nurture since a significant amount of its drivers rely on in-person cues, body language, and display of emotions. It makes it harder for remote teams to tell how everyone else is feeling, let alone create psychological safety.

With Paul neither agreeing nor disagreeing, Marilyn started with him, “I am on the fence. I disagree that remote teams feel less safe, but I do agree that it's important to be very thoughtful and deliberate about how people are feeling. But guess what? That should have always been the case. Now we have to ask people how they are and not accept the I'm fine brush off. How often did we dig deeper into the ‘how's it going’ as you walk past someone in a corridor. This is highly dependent on the team and manager. Some in-office folks with great teams and great managers feel more safe in the office. Some in-office folks with toxic managers dread coming into the office and shifting a manager changes that overnight. It has nothing to do with either the office or being in your basement at home. I do agree that it's harder to create safety remotely because trust is harder to build virtually. This is why it's vital to invest in in-person events and collaboration as part of a remote model, which is exactly what we've done. We totally see in-person collaboration and events as a big part of our future, even though team members who choose not to come to the office on a day-to-day basis, do not have to.”

Next, Joe shared his thoughts and said, “First of all, individual-level attributes are not my cup of tea, but I can say something about location. In my understanding, a lot of this psychological safety comes from us being able to understand the other, to empathize with the other, and particularly if the other's in distress. I'm on the fence like Paul, in the sense that if members of the team are from high context cultures, where the things that are important are not spoken, where if I feel unsafe I'm not going to say it because it's not what we do, then it's a problem. But if we come from low context cultures, it's fine. We need to have some sensitivity about the local context, in particular the way we communicate and the work of Hall that studied low and high context cultures. In a culture like my own, I am Portuguese, the important things are never written. They are, as we say, between the lines.”

Being the last to comment on this motion, Liam agreed saying, “We just touched previously on the ability to be able to build process documentation inside of teams, meaning that the hard skills inside of an organization are effectively replaceable. The company can replace that individual relatively easily. It's more the soft skills, the EQ skills. It's understanding how to be able to move that team forward and the innovation that you need, at least inside of a technology company, to be able to build different products and go in different directions inside of your organization. That's what we go after, at least for us. One of the questions that I ask every new interviewee in our company is the Peter Thiel question which is, ‘What is something that you believe that very few people agree with you on?’ The ability to be able to say I agree that the sky is red instead of blue is something that very few people will do, but those are the people that usually end up producing innovations inside of fast growing organizations.

In terms of just building more psychological safety, connected to Paul, we do team retreats every single year. We run a conference about the company every single year and we fly people into one singular location. That creates a lot of psychological safety. The other factor is that inside of remote first organizations there’s significantly less middle management than in on-premise organizations because remote companies don't require the same level of management as on-premise teams. That may also create some level of psychological safety where they're not maybe getting those check-ins as often as they would be. The way that we solve that is whenever we do managerial meetings with direct employees, one-on-ones, it's only about EQ, it's only about how you're doing, not about your work because that can be reported to me asynchronously. I don't need to know how many widgets you've produced. I want to know how you're feeling so that we can make sure that you continue to produce those widgets in the future.”

“I don't need to know how many widgets you've produced. I want to know how you're feeling so that we can make sure that you continue to produce those widgets in the future.”

Motion 4: Engaging in & Managing Conflict

Remote teams are less likely to engage in and effectively manage conflict than co-located teams. This is because individuals prefer to address conflict in-person and it is especially easy to hide how you are feeling when you can hide behind a screen.

Engaging in and managing conflict is a natural element of team interaction.We know that there is good and bad conflict and so, I want to hear your perspective on this motion,” said Marilyn."

Joe agreed and explained, “My view on this is a segue from what Paul and Liam said on the last motion, which is trust that depends on believing what you don't understand but the other told you so. Misunderstanding, for example, because of context-specific knowledge can lead to conflict that is mostly cognitive. I'm not talking about political conflict, I'm talking about cognitive conflict, not understanding the other. It has a lot to do with mistrust. Therefore I believe there’s a link between managing conflict and the psychological safety argument.”

Contrary to Joe, Paul disagreed with the motion and shared, “I disagree that either engaging in or effectively managing conflict is more or less likely with remote or in-person teams. I think leaders that struggled before dealing with conflict, struggle today and vice versa. It's got more to do with personality type than remote or co-location. Some types dread confronting someone in real life, but can more easily manage doing that remotely. And the reverse is also true. I think this is a preference and it's something we can help people with skills. There are undoubtedly a different set of skills to trying to move conflict forward over video to doing that in person.”

“I disagree that either engaging in or effectively managing conflict is more or less likely with remote or in-person teams. It's got more to do with personality type than remote or co-location.“

Commenting on the insights Paul shared, Joe said, “I am completely in agreement with what Paul said. Consider political conflict, for example, our conflict having to do with both of us wanting a resource and there's only the resource for one of us, for example, a promotion. Co-located teams that work in the same unit or on the same site in the same company are much more likely to enter into political conflict than remote teams because often, people on remote teams are not part of the same site and unit. They have different resources. The likelihood of me entering into conflict with Paul because we want something is very small. Therefore the likelihood of us getting into conflict is most likely to be cognitive, not political or otherwise.

There's an amazing book by Dr. Susan Scott which is ‘Fierce conversations.’ It's quite old now, but the premise of this book is that every relationship at home and at work succeeds or fails one conversation at a time. I think if you are remote or if you are in-person that stands. If you're always trying to have disciplined and kind and productive conversations, that stands you in really good stead to build that trust and to build those relationships and to be productive, whether you're remote or in person.

“Conflict with mistrust is a recipe for disaster,” said Liam. “If I can go into conflict with someone that I trust, generally I'm going to come out of that exchange without feeling fundamentally mistrusted. I have to trust the people that I'm going into conflict with. If I don't trust them, there's a big issue there and we can't really have a healthy debate. Conflict is important and it should be encouraged, but you have to have that trust there. Meaning is this person aligned to the company goals that you're aligned to? Are we both moving in the same direction and we just disagree about this small aspect of the way to be able to do it? In terms of the context of it really moving the hierarchy of communication up as much as possible is to me what I see as the most important. For me, in-person is better than video, video is better than audio, audio is better than instant messaging and instant messaging is better than email. If I've exchanged 10 instant messages with someone and we're almost having a conflict through slack, I immediately try to jump up to the most interactive form of communication that I have access to so that we can work it out.”

Motion 5: Team Identification

Remote teams have weaker team identification than co-located teams. This is due to the reduced visible, concrete, formal and informal dimensions of team life that one can have in an office. As a result, remote teams may suffer in how much they identify with their organizations.

Team Identification is defined as one’s sense of belonging to a team along with the positive emotional and evaluative investments one puts in that category membership. To discuss this concept in relation to remote and co-located teams, Marilyn asked the panelists to share whether they agree or disagree with the motion and to share why.

Kicking it off this time with Joe, he explained, “I'm really unable to choose for or against the motion because we belong to different scales of teams. Some of which are not teams, but groups. So, I'm part of a team, but the team is part of an organization. The organization is part of a corporation which is part of a community. The community, as well, is part of the country and the country is part of the world. A very strong identification to one level may be counterproductive because it means a lesser identification with the levels above or below. That's when place is very important."

He continued, "As humans, we have always lived in a place. The moment there is trouble, we go home. I still remember when I was at INSEAD teaching an executive program on September 11 when somebody came into the room and said, this is happening in New York, we have to stop. The first thing I did was I jumped into a car, went to the airport and flew to my home in Porto where I hadn't been for years. Don't ask me why. That night, flying in Europe was stopped. My immediate reaction in the face of danger was to go back home. Home is the place we go to when things are wrong. So identification with home is quite important. Some people are so fortunate to have leaders that are able to make an office or a company, a home, not a substitute for the real home, but a sort of home. That goes back to what Paul said about the quality of leadership.”

Next was Paul. He said, “I disagree with the motion only because I disagree with the absolute in the premise. Team identity comes from the achievement of the team, from them feeling a place in the organization and the value that they add comes from the relationships that are going on in the team and from the leadership. I think that can be hugely successful in a remote setting or in an office setting, but can also be a disaster. With a great plan, great execution, great leadership and great team members, then team identity is not location dependent.”

Lastly, Liam shared, “First of all, Joe mentioned that whenever we get moved into conflict, we go back home, back to safety. One of the things that's important to take into consideration is when people work remotely, in the vast majority of cases, they actually are working from home. If there's a conflict that occurs up in my office here, the ability for me to be able to leave that environment, which may or may not at some points be quite toxic, is to go downstairs and to talk to my wife about some VP or some chief level officer that's been creating problems in my life. Something that we need to take into consideration when we have these types of healthy conflicts inside of an organization is that safety that you might've been creating, that might've been at your home, is now getting infected by the conflict occurring directly inside of your home.

I had the same issue as Joe when I was in British Columbia, which was on the other side of the country, when 9/11 happened. I almost wanted to jump into a plane and go back to French Canada, to Quebec, which is where I'm from on the other side of Canada. It's interesting how we both had that same kind of desire. You jumped on it and I didn't. The very next day, all of the flights were closed. For me, having healthy conflict inside of organizations is critical. You need to have trust, you need to have this environment set up so that those conflicts are addressable. I always say let's get rid of the elephants in the room here and let's have board meeting conversations, not hallway conversations. Let's address these head-on. As long as we're doing that, we're going to have a healthy organization whether we're remote or on premise in the office.”

🔥Rapid fire questions

At the end of every session, a series of rapid fire questions was asked to all our conference speakers:

Q: What's the skill that every leader needs to have today that maybe wasn't as important before?

A: Joe: The ability to be at home in the world

Liam: The ability to manage asynchronously

Paul: Writing and documentation

A: Joe: I wish I knew and this is not a book title

Liam: Radical Candor

Paul: Sevens Heaven

A: Joe: Fado and french songs from the 60s and 70s

Liam: Anything without lyrics

Paul: Amazon music

Q: What is the perfect team size?

A: Joe: Three

Liam: Anything below the Dunbar number, between 100 and 150

Paul: One that is able to achieve peak workload without everyone being a casualty

of that workload. But during normal days, they’re able to deliver meaningful work

and achieve work-life harmony

Q: The future of teams is?

A: Joe: Teamwork

Liam: Exciting

Paul: Bright


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