Dr Carolyn Axtell, a senior lecturer from the University´s Institute of Work Psychology, conducted a study into whether colleagues tended to misinterpret each other more in virtual settings, such as when working with one another over email.
The findings from Dr Axtell´s research were gathered following a study in a dispersed IT systems development team, which was spread across the UK and India. The study, which was carried out over a few weeks, used interviews and questionnaires to ask people about the extent to which they had misunderstandings with remote partners and the factors that contributed to these. It was revealed that 79 per cent of respondents said they had misunderstandings with remote parts of the team.
Results showed that misunderstandings were lower when dispersed colleagues put effort into trying to understand their remote colleague´s point of view. However, this wasn´t enough on its own. This greater effort to take in the point of view of a colleague was only effective if there was greater face to face contact between the remote parties, if both parties tried to understand each other and if there was greater information and clarity about what the remote party did (i.e. what their role was).
Dr Axtell´s research follows on from previous studies which have suggested that individuals who are dispersed across different locations come from different contexts and are likely to have different knowledge, assumptions and expectations. To compound this, there are fewer social cues such as body language available via virtual communication to help people understand each other. Therefore, a colleague would be unable to see a puzzled look on someone´s face for instance when they send an email and may not realise that they need to clarify a point, or explain it in a different way.
It is hoped Dr Axtell´s research, which was featured at a recent Business Lunch in support of Sheffield Business Festival 2010, may encourage people working with colleagues remotely to try to understand each other´s perspectives by learning more about what their remote colleagues do. Most importantly, where possible, particularly in situations where misunderstandings might occur, face to face interaction should be encouraged by employers.
Dr Carolyn Axtell, a senior lecturer from the University of Sheffield´s Institute of Work Psychology and the Management School, said: “With more people having the opportunity to work remotely from colleagues, it is important that we learn to make this form of working as effective as possible. When working remotely we no longer have the informal social system, such as chats by the water cooler, to help us understand and learn about each other. Therefore, information about remote parties needs to be more explicit and clear and we need to put more effort into trying to understand each other.”
Notes for Editors: To find out more about the University of Sheffield´s Institute of Work Psychology, visit the link below.
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