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August 2013


Us Versus Them: Research Study on the Problems and Effectiveness of Partially Distributed Teams

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Us Versus Them: Research Study on the Problems and Effectiveness of Partially Distributed Teams

The March 2013 issue of the IEEE Translations on Professional Communication published an article about teamwork that I found interesting and thought CIDM might find interesting as well. CIDM members typically manage organizations that are highly distributed, with team members in multiple global geographic locations and with a combination of team members working together in small groups and individuals working remotely, often at home. Presentations at Best Practices conferences over the past 10 years or more, published CIDM research on working with technical communicators in India and China, and informal communications from managers all suggest that these diverse teams are challenging to manage.

Although CIDM members recognize that distributed teams present challenges for management and team members, perhaps one of the most vexing problems occurs when the teams are partially distributed. A completely distributed team is one in which every member works alone, which happens in organizations where everyone works at home or individually in different locations. A partially distributed team has subgroups in different geographies. At least one part of the team has members who are co-located and can communicate face-to-face. Other team members are located in other subgroups or may work alone and, as a result, must use various media to communicate. Research results suggest that partially distributed teams face more challenges than completely distributed teams because of what the researchers refer to as an Us-vs.-Them challenge.

Of course, even co-located teams can be challenged to work effectively, a subject we examined in-depth during the 2010 Best Practices conference. Charlotte Robidoux (Hewlett-Packard) and Rebekka Andersen (University of California at Davis) reported on methods to build an effective collaborative team environment.1 At the 2013 Best Practices conference, we revisit issues of Teaming and Collaboration in two important Monday-afternoon sessions.2

This newly reported research study, “In-Group (Us) versus Out-Group (Them) Dynamics and Effectiveness in Partially Distributed Teams,”3 confirms our impression that collaboration is challenging, but especially so for partially distributed teams. The researchers, Robin Privman, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, and Yiran Wang, come from AT&T Labs Research and the New Jersey Institute of Technology respectively. Their comprehensive study involves a qualitative and quantitative analysis of responses to a survey of 238 professionals identified through LinkedIn sites and one international telecommunications company. Their research questions can be summarized as follows:

  • When people work on teams that are partially distributed, do they report an Us vs. Them problem and does this problem affect their ability to work effectively?
  • What do the team members consider their greatest challenges working on partially distributed teams?
  • Can partially distributed teams overcome these challenges? If so, how?

Earlier studies reviewed in the article suggested that the Us-vs.-Them phenomenon is pervasive and often results in less effective team performance. The co-located team members meet face-to-face, socialize together, chat informally, and otherwise communicate easily. The remote members have to rely on email, phone, and other electronic communication, which perhaps creates more problems than it solves. If remote team members are in different time zones, speak different languages, or represent different cultural norms from the co-located team members, problems abound. The remote team members may come originally from different companies joined through mergers and acquisitions, be paid differently, or be outliers from a group that represents “headquarters.”

The researchers report that the co-located team members see themselves as “Us” and identify the outsiders as different and not really full team members, the proverbial “Them.” Cultural differences and time-zone challenges often reduce trust among the team members and communication delays present difficulties in ensuring that work is done on time and correctly, decreasing the effectiveness of the teams.

The study found a strong correlation between teams that had a strong Us-vs.-Them viewpoint and their perception of team effectiveness. The Us members did not trust the remote members, which resulted in a poor team spirit. The in-group did not trust the remote members to complete their assignments on time, respond to requests for project status accurately, understand what they needed to do, or respond quickly and correctly. Some in-group members did not believe that their remote members were actually working.

As managers, CIDM members must be aware of the problems inherent in an Us-vs.-Them mentality in their partially distributed teams and must work carefully to overcome the problems. If the problems continue unabated, the team’s performance will be adversely affected.

Participants in the study were asked how the problems of partially distributed teams might be overcome. What they wanted was

  • better communication channels, including some face-to-face interaction
  • better leadership to help all team members understand the team’s goal, the assignments, the work priorities, and the progress on assignments
  • a recognition that all team members were able to make valuable contributions to the team effort
  • an opportunity to better understand the impact and manage the cultural differences and language barriers

Some of the teams that the researchers surveyed were successful at overcoming Us-vs.-Them issues and functioning quite effectively. These teams reported few problems with “communication channels, leadership, cultural differences, and conflicting goals and responsibilities.” Quite clearly, if their inherent problems could be overcome, partially distributed teams could be effective.

As managers, our responsibility is to identify the potential problems and work hard to ensure that the barriers to effective performance are removed. It’s hard work, frequently frustrating, and may not always be successful but without leadership the problems only multiply.


1. https://www.infomanagementcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BP2011-06Andersen_Robidoux.pdf
2. http://old.infomanagementcenter.com/bestpractices/2013/agenda.htm
IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. 56, No. 1, March 2013, pages 33-49.