Talk:Distributed workforce

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History of Distributed Work[edit]

"Distributed Work" New technologies are changing important aspects of how we live and work, and the ways we manage distance in the work environment.The management of distance requires more than just technical artifacts. In fact, techniques, social conventions and norms, organizational structures, and institutions are also required. In this section, we take a look at the ways distributed work has evolved over the past 50 decades.

"The Distributed Workplace: Sustainable work environments" Over the 20th century the workplace became increasingly associated with the office building. In the mid 1900’s, the most prominent business strategy was based on a mechanistic view of office workers as units of production to be housed in a unified and controlling space. Then, in the 1960s the office was seen as a communications system, with the floorplan opening up to facilitate the free flow of information. This office space was designed with the intention of fostering communication and flexible teamwork within the physical location. Then in the 1980s there was a major workplace revolution as the computer moved from the computer room to the desktop. The new network technologies facilitated the increasing globalization of particular industries (especially financial and professional services) and the way people worked would begin to significantly change. In the 1990s a second workplace revolution saw the introduction of “new ways of working” a response to the realization that information technology was transforming cultural, social, technological and construction processes. At this time, the virtual world and digital tools reduced the need for synchronous, face-to-face communication and co-location for office workers for the purposes of carrying out defined tasks.This digital revolution was the convergence between communications and computing technologies which now allows individuals and organizations to connect in ways, and on scales that were previously inconceivable. Today, the new economy is characterized by an increasing virtualization of products, processes, organizations and relationships. The new economy production no longer requires people to work together in the same physical space to access the tools and resources they need to produce their work and allows for distributed work. (The Distributed Workplace: Sustainable work environments, Harrison et al., 2004)

Key Concepts[edit]

There are several key terms associated with collocated work and distributed work. The most important concepts are common ground, coupling in work, collaboration readiness, and technology readiness. This section will briefly define these four concepts.

Common ground refers to the knowledge that participants have in common, and they are aware that they have this information in common. Common ground is not just established from some general knowledge about the person’s background, but also through specific knowledge learned from several different cues that are available at the moment, including the person’s appearance and behavior during conversational interactions. The figure below, shows the characteristics that contribute to achieving common ground that are inherent in various communication media (Figure 8, Olson and Olson, page 160)

It is important to note that those who are remote complain about the difficulty of establishing common ground. This is because when individuals are connected by audio conferencing, it is difficult to tell who is speaking if you do not know the participant well. However, people with video can engage in the subtle negotiation that establishes local common ground- whether what was said was understood or not, whether the conversation can proceed or needs repair. Overall, the more common ground people can establish, the easier the communication will be and the greater the productivity.

Coupling refers to the extent and kind of communication required by the work. Tightly coupled work is work that strongly depends on the talents of collections of workers and is nonroutine, and even ambiguous. Components of this type of work are highly interdependent, meaning that the work requires frequent, complex communication among group members, with short feedback loops and multiple streams of information. This type of communication is very difficult in remote locations, mostly because technology does not support rapid back and forth conversations or awareness and repair of ambiguity. On the other hand, loosely coupled work has fewer dependencies or is more routine. It is important that all group members establish common ground about the task, goals, and procedures before working, but this type of work overall requires less frequent or less complicated interactions.

Collaboration readiness is a groups willingness to work together and share their ideas. Using shared technology assumes that the coworkers need to share information and are rewarded for sharing it. It is important to note that one should not attempt to introduce groupware and remote technologies in organizations and communities that do not have a culture of sharing and collaboration.

Technology readiness is a company or groups willingness and ability to use technology. Companies require a technical infrastructure if they are going to adopt technologies in the company. In particular, they require the habits, including those of preparation, regular access, attention given to others’ need for information, in order to effectively use the necessary technology for distributed work. Researchers repeatedly see that failure of distributed work often results from attempts to introduce new technologies to organizations or communities that are not yet comfortable with technologies that are already in place. The following chart explains the order in which various collaboration technologies sholud be adopted in organizations to allow to employees to become familiar and learn with each new technology. (Figure 9, Olson and Olson, page 166) As this chart shows, advanced technologies should be introduced in small steps.

These key concepts are important because they help differentiate between collocated and distributed work.

Distributed vs Collocated Teams[edit]

There are two types of work that explain the geographical distance between coworkers/collaborators. ""Collocated work"" is the case in which team members are at the same location. Distributed work is the term used to explain team members who are not in the same physical location when the work on a project. There are many differences, similarities, benefits, and obstacles of these two types of work. In order to distinguish between collocated and distributed work, it is necessary to go into more detail.

""Collocated work"" is the case in which the team members are at the same physical location. This may be temporary due to travel to a common location or permanent because all collaborators of the group are at the common work site. Same location means that the coworkers can get to each other’s workspaces with a short walk and communicate via face-to-face interactions. Also, during meetings or small group meetings, a major advantage of collocated work is that individuals are able to move from one meeting to another, simply by overhearing a conversation, seeing what someone was working on, and being aware of how long they had worked on it with or without progress. In addition, during these meetings coworkers can observe someone’s reaction by being able to see his/her gesture or glance. This allows for one to make sure that the group has common ground prior to moving on. Also, coworkers have access to common spaces for group interactions and have mutual access to significant shared information. In a study, researchers observed an individual describe something by drawing with his hands in the air. Later, someone referred to “that idea” by pointing to the spot in the air where the first person had “drawn his idea”. The table below, further explains the key characteristics of collocated interactions among group members (PAGE 149)

Opposite of collocated work, Distributed work is the case in which team members are not physically in the same location. Thus, they are forced to use different methods of technology to communicate to make progress on the project/problem they are working on. Today, the technology distributed work groups use to communicate are constantly changing because of rapid changes in technology and because different groups have varying access to technology. Olson & Olson describe the options of communication today which include:

  • Telephony in its current incarnation
  • Meeting room video conferencing
  • Desktop video and audio conferencing
  • Chat rooms for text interactions
  • File transfer
  • Application sharing
  • Some very primitive virtual reality options

Distributed work can be very successful, if the company or group displays technology readiness. Some of the benefits of distributed work include:

  • Simultaneous access to real-time data from instruments around the world, allowing coworkers to talk while something is happening
  • NetMeeting has been a success. People who had previously driven long distances to attend a meeting in their area began attending from their offices’. These individuals chose to forego the time and stress of travel in favor of remote participation
  • Ongoing work- 1,000 software engineers working on the project in 4 sites. Has allowed numerous people at various different sites to stay in contact over email video and audio conferencing, transferred files and fax. If everyone understands the structure of the collaborative work and knows his or her role, distributed work can be a success.

Distributed work is far from perfect and there are many failures which include:

  • Complaints about the quality of communication over audio and video conferencing
  • Pairs of people from different countries, speaking English as their second language, and performing a task with moderate amount of ambiguity performed significantly better when they had video compared to audio only
Indented line* Adding gestures to explain the ideas better helped
  • Hard to detect a persons motivation when you are not in the office. For example, if someone had a tough meeting you do not know this and therefore will not know that it is not the right time to send a lengthy, stern email.
Indented line* One important feature of collocation that is missing in remote work is awareness of the state of one’s coworkers, both their presence-absence and their mental state.

Overall, people who have little common ground benefit significantly from having a video channel

Communication Technology[edit]

Effective group communication involves various non-verbal communication characteristics. Because distance limits interpersonal interaction between members of distributed groups, these characteristics often become constrained. Communication media focuses on alternative ways to achieve these qualities and promote effective communication. This section addresses communication technology in relation to the theories of grounding and mutual knowledge, and discusses the costs and benefits of various communication technology tools.

Grounding and Technology

Grounding is the process of updating the evolving common ground between participants. Participants constantly gather various forms of verbal and non-verbal evidence to establish understanding of change and task.

The following are means of collecting evidence and grounding:

Quality Description
Co-presence When sharing the same physical environment, participants are able to easily and hear what the other is doing and looking at.
Visibility The participants are able to see each other and are able to pick up non-verbal facial cues and body language.
Audibility When the participants are able to communicate by speaking, they are able to pick up voice intonation and utterance timing.
Cotemporality Efficiency is promoted when an utterance is produced just about when it is received and understood, without delay.
Simultaneity Messages can be simultaneously conveyed and received by both participants.
Sequentiality The participants speak only with each other without intervening turns from conversations with other people.
Reviewability Participants are able to return to a physical form of the exchange at a later time.
Revisability Participants are able to privately revise their statements before sending their message.

Different forms of communication result in the varied presence of these communication characteristics. Therefore, the nature of communication technology can either promote or inhibit grounding between participants.

The following table highlights the presence or lack of evidence available to the participants:

Quality Face-to-Face Telephone Video Conference Email Letters
Co-presence X ?
Visibility X X
Audibility X X X
Cotemporality X X X
Simultaneity X X X
Sequentiality X X X
Reviewability X X
Revisability X X

The absence of grounding information results in reduced ability to read and understand social cues. This increases the social distance between them.

Costs to Grounding Change

The lack of one of these characteristics generally forces participants to use alternative grounding techniques, because the costs associated with grounding change. There is often a trade-off between the costs- one cost will increase as another decreases. There is also often a correlation between the costs. The following table highlights several of the costs that can change as the medium of communication changes.

Cost Description Paid By
Formulation Time and effort increase as utterances are created and revised and as utterances become more complicated. Speaker
Production Effort invested in producing a message varies depending on the medium of communication. Speaker
Reception Listening is generally easier than reading. Addressee
Understanding Costs are higher the more often that the addressee has to formulate the appropriate context of the conversation. Addressee
Start-up The cost of starting up a new discourse. Attention needs to be commanded, the message formulated, and the message needs to be received. Both
Delay The cost of delaying an utterance in order to more carefully plan, revise and execute the communication. Both
Asynchrony The cost associated with the work required to cue one participant to stop and another to start. Both
Speaker change The cost associated with the work required to cue one participant to stop and another to start. Both
Display The cost associated with displaying non-verbal cues. Both
Fault The cost associated with producing a mistaken message. Both
Repair The cost to repair the message and send the correct one. Both

Examples of Communication Technology

- Structured Management (Hinds & Kiesler): It has been argued that work can be adapted to individual situations through task decomposition and version control.

- Email

Case Study: Boeing-Rocketdyne SLICE[edit]



SLICE was tasked with designing a rocket engine at 1/100 the current cost, increase the speed to market by ten times, and increase the rocket engine useful life by three times. Additionally, this team of eight presented their design after 10 months of work, without committing more than 15% of their working time to the project, without collocated meetings and without a common professional ground. — Preceding unsigned comment added by LeaMasatsugu (talkcontribs) 14:05, 18 October 2012 (UTC)

Management Practice 1: Strategy-Setting

The managers at the three involved companies began the project by spending a year developing an umbrella agreement, the “Continuous Ordering Agreement”, which explicitly defined contractual obligations, the allocation of intellectual property, and the allotment of time the team would have to work on the project. Determining these policies of risk management, project responsibility and funding between companies required a significant level of trust and respect between the teams.

The Continuous Ordering Agreement strategically accomplished three fundamental elements of a successful inter-company team. The team was able to candidly share information without worrying about disclosing company intellectual property, the planning time between idea and project kick-off was significantly reduced, and the team was protected from management changes within their respective companies. — Preceding unsigned comment added by LeaMasatsugu (talkcontribs) 13:41, 26 October 2012 (UTC)

Management Practice 2: Technology Use

The team primarily used the Internet Notebook, the Project Vault and teleconferences as their methods of collaborative technology. The Internet Notebook allowed the team to securely and remotely access the project and work on and review other ideas simultaneously. The Project Vault was a common file storage and information transfer tool used to promote sharing of all information. Although the team initially planned to use only this written communication, but, due to the overwhelming amount of ideas and data, the team began to hold two teleconferences a week. The following table illustrates the capabilities of each method:

Quality Internet Notebook Project Vault Teleconference
Audibility X
Cotemporality X X X
Simultaneity X X X
Sequentiality X X X
Reviewability X X
Revisability X X

In order to maintain efficiency and minimize confusion, the team decided to address their need for knowledge management by retracting the prohibition of face-to-face conversations and instead enforcing a rule of total information sharing. The issue then became the organization and order of ideas, which was not as simply solved. Another issue was the involvement and interaction of team members with their collocated teams. Because the team members were also involved with other projects at their respective companies, they also altered their protocol to allow for interruptions and multitasking during meetings. This unintentionally resulted in the team performing just-in-time analysis and receiving real-time feedback.

Management Practice 2: Work Restructuring



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Distance Work in the Future[edit]

In the future, design improvements and more horsepower will solve a number of current problems that currently cause limitations of distance technologies. Greater bandwidth will solve the disruptive influence of today’s delays in audio and video transmission. This will also allow for larger, smoother, more life-size displays of remote workers, making their interaction more similar to the flow of face-to-face interactions. In the future, it is possible that technology will provide capabilities that are in some ways superior to face-to-face options. However, it is likely that problems will result from distributed work technologies and from a lack of knowledge to operate the technologies in the future and face-to-face interactions will not be able to be eliminated completely. (Olson and Olson)

See also[edit]



  • Olson, G. M. & Olson, J. S. (2000). Distance matters. Human-Computer Interaction, 15(2-3), 139-178.
  • Olson, J. S., Hofer, E., Bos, N., Zimmerman, A., Olson, G. M., Cooney, D., & Faniel, I. (2008). A theory of remote scientific collaboration. In G. M. Olson, A. Zimmerman & N. Bos (Eds.), Scientific Collaboration on the Internet. . Cambridge, MA:: MIT Press.
  • Malhotra, Arvind, Majchrzak, Ann, Carman, Robert & Lott, Vern (2001). Radical innovation without collocation: A case study at Boeing-Rocketdyne. MIS Quarterly, 25(2).
  • Maznevski, M., & Chudoba, C. (2000). Bridging space over time: Global virtual team dynamics and effectiveness. Organization Science, 11(5), 473-492.
  • Clark, Herbert H. & Brennan, Susan E. (1991). Grounding in communication. In L. B. Resnick, R. M. Levine, & S. D. Teasley (Eds.). Perspectives on socially shared cognition. (pp. 127-149). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Krauss, R. M. & Fussell, S. R. (1990). Mutual knowledge and communicative effectiveness. In J. Galegher & R. E. Kraut, et al. (Eds.), Intellectual teamwork: Social and technological foundations of cooperative work (pp. 111-145). Hillsdale, NJ, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  • Kiesler, S., & Cummings, J. (2002). What do we know about proximity and distance in work groups? A legacy of research. In P. Hinds, & Kiesler, S. (Ed.), Distributed Work (pp. 57-82). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Gergle, D., Kraut, R. E., & Fussell, S. R. (In press). Using Visual information for grounding and awareness in collaborative tasks. Human Computer Interaction.
  • Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., & Ng, Z.-W. (2005). Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 925-936.
  • Book: Harrison, Andrew, Paul Wheeler, and Carolyn Whitehead. The distributed workplace sustainable work environments. London: Spon Press, 2004. Print.
  • Hinds, P. J., & Bailey, D. E. (2003). Out of sight, out of sync: Understanding conflict in distributed teams. Organization Science, 14(6), 615-632.
  • Zhu, H., Kraut, R. E., & Kittur, A. (2012). Effectiveness of shared leadership in online communitiesCSCW'12: Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 407-416 ). NY: ACM Press.
  • Additional Book we might use: Hinds, Pamela, and Sara Kiesler.Distributed work. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

External Links[edit]

Requested move[edit]

The following discussion is an archived discussion of a requested move. Please do not modify it. Subsequent comments should be made in a new section on the talk page. Editors desiring to contest the closing decision should consider a move review. No further edits should be made to this section.

The result of the move request was: No move. Cúchullain t/c 13:28, 20 December 2012 (UTC)

Distributed workforceDistributed work – We would like to rename this page or "move the page". We believe that the title of this article, "Distributed workforce", should describe those who are working for a distributed group or project. The contents that have been added to the article as well as what is covered in the article already, discuss what distributed work is. Therefore, I believe that this page should be moved to "Distributed work". The title should also be disambiguated in order redirect people to and from the "Virtual work" article. These articles have different content but a user may search for Virtual Work with the intention of getting information about Distributed work or vice versa. Any comments or suggestions on this matter would be appreciatedEP44 (talk) 01:52, 22 November 2012 (UTC)

  • Comment. That should be move to Distributed work, as it is not a proper noun. Apteva (talk) 19:20, 22 November 2012 (UTC)
  • Oppose "distributed work" makes me think of distributed computing, where work is distributed over many computers, and not employees. -- (talk) 11:30, 23 November 2012 (UTC)
  • Oppose – the current tilte seems fine for this article, and I don't see the conflict with saying more in it about distributed projects or groups. If it gets to be too much, propose a split later. Also the nominator should look at WP:TITLE and MOS:CAPS and not propose titles with unnecessary capitalization. Dicklyon (talk) 19:03, 23 November 2012 (UTC)
  • Comment. I believe Distributed work is a more accurate title because we are not just talking about the team of people working from different locations. Instead we are talking about components necessary for distributed work to be successful, the history, and some examples of distributed work. I will correct the capitalization of the title.EP44 (talk) 15:41, 29 November 2012 (UTC)
  • Oppose. This seems almost like a coatrack usurpation. Why not instead create a separate article about "distributed work"? These are clearly distinct topics. -- (talk) 20:16, 5 December 2012 (UTC)
  • 'Agree'. A Google Scholar search on 'workforce' returns articles about the demographics, education, and the management of the people working in an industry. The article in both August and its current version focused on a style of work and the benefits and disadvantages of this work style. Spliting the article into 'Distributed work' and 'Distributed workforce' could be fine, but there isn't any content for the workforce branch. Full disclosure: I am the faculty member who supervised the students who worked on this article for the past few months. Robertekraut (talk) 16:21, 14 December 2012 (UTC)
  • Oppose - IMHO, the term "Distributed workforce" applies to people who are members of the same team, the term "Distributed work" applies to activities that are done to as part of the same project. In particular this artcile does not touch on the concept of sub-contracting of work (a feature of "distributed work") as opposed to "distributed workforce" where the people are under the same management. Martinvl (talk) 20:15, 17 December 2012 (UTC)
The above discussion is preserved as an archive of a requested move. Please do not modify it. Subsequent comments should be made in a new section on this talk page or in a move review. No further edits should be made to this section.