Working from home might now be mainstream, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s accepted it. There are many people who believe that remote work stifles creativity and collaboration – without being able to interact in-person, the thinking goes, you can’t enjoy the same exchange of ideas or creative sparring. But is this actually true? According to a Behavioral Scientist article, it’s not remote work itself that stifles creativity – it’s the cadence of communication that remote teams are using. The secret to avoiding this? Bursty communication. But what exactly is bursty communication and why is it so good for teams?
Bursty communication involves rapid periods of collaboration and communication followed by long periods of silence. Research shows that communicating in bursts can actually help teams be more productive and more creative. In this scheduling technique, you would set aside specific times a day for checking email and responding to chat messages, and for the rest of the day you’d work in quiet isolation and get stuck into focused deep work.
There are a few reasons why bursty communication works so well for teams. The first is that trying to be “always on” has a counterproductive effect on creativity and productivity, particularly when it comes to more complex problem-solving.
A study by Harvard Business School giving three teams the same problem to solve highlights this perfectly. One team worked on the problem individually, the second was “always on” and collaborated constantly, and the third team collaborated intermittently – or “in bursts”. The results showed that the isolated team had good ideas but weren’t able to fully develop them, and the “always on” team suffered from groupthink – their ideas weren’t as innovative as the isolated team. By The bursty team proved to be the best at problem solving by having the best of both worlds: quiet time to reflect and come up with strong ideas, and collaboration time to swap solutions, learn from each other, and identity – as a team – which ideas were best.
Because we live in an “always on” culture, it might seem strange that the “always on” team didn’t fare better. We’re conditioned to respond to messages instantly, to feel that if we don’t immediately reply something bad might happen – or at least, we’ll appear unmotivated and idle. But what we can tell from this study is that teams need time for focused deep work and creative thinking just as much as they need time for collaboration. An Academy of Management study showed that when teams continually communicate – whether it’s to reply to Slack messages or emails – their productivity and creativity decreases. The success rate between teams practising bursty communication and teams who are always on is so stark that even incentives like cash prices can’t improve the quality of work.
Another reason why bursty communication is so effective is because it’s indicative of teams who are in tune with each other’s needs. “During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas,” the author of the Academy of Managed study commented. “Conversely, during longer periods of silence everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.”
The issue is that many remote tools make it almost impossible to communicate in this way. We feel pressured to have our Slack status constantly set to “available”, to let people know that we’re hard at work – particularly if we’re working remotely and feel a need to be more visible. But being continually flooded with information means we’re living in a culture of perpetual distraction. If we don’t have the time to do focused deep work, we won’t be able to properly process our thoughts and enjoy any meaningful insight. To enjoy optimum creativity and productivity, we need to revive the lost art of solitude. Bursty communication allows us to do this.
It’s true that moving from always on communication might feel like a hard shift to make, especially if you’re a part of a communication-heavy culture. Opportunities for quiet, focused work are all around, but it’s up to us to make room in our schedules for them. Managers have a huge role to play in creating new communication norms, setting the boundaries that lets employees feel able to become unavailable for hours at a time. So take the lead in scheduling blocks of time when your team plans to communicate collectively – whether that’s a video meeting first thing in the morning at the start and end of each week, or a group catch-up after lunch. During these times you can enjoy rapid back and forth communication before each returning to isolated focused time.
Of course, while this might be a good rule of thumb for most team members, it can get a bit more complex for managers themselves, since your job necessitates being responsive and communicating with people. So make sure you talk to your team about why you won’t be online, when you will be and how they can get in touch if there’s a true emergency. You might think that because remote managers can’t check in with their teams in person, they’d need to spend more time communicating, but the opposite is often true: managers who work remotely spend less time on communication and have more time for their real work than their in-office counterparts.
Collaboration is one of the keys to successful teamwork, and communication is a key to remote work – but this doesn’t mean we need to do it all the time. We need to find the right balance between being always on and going off grid, and bursty communication is the healthy middle ground.