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What is the impact of co-location on productivity

Some articles have discussed the unpopularity of open office concepts while pointing out the increased productivity of remote workers. When it comes to successfully delivering projects, organizations should focus less on where team members sit or work and more on how teams are organized. And so the debate over the productivity of remote workers versus co-located colleagues continues.

Not long ago, I was asked to take over a troubled project that was over a year past its original scheduled completion date. When I was asked to step in, the organization’s functional managers had twice attempted to finish the project by putting the project team in a “war room” on the assumption that the issues would be partly solved by physical proximity.

In my experience, physical proximity has less to do with getting to “done” than the strength of the relationships present within a long-lived, cohesive team.

In the case of the aforementioned troubled project, the war room was perceived by the team and myself as a partly punitive measure. Forced co-location is sometimes used with the dual purpose of ensuring that necessary people are present as well as to provide an incentive to the team to get it done and therefore be allowed out of the war room. When used as a punitive measure, it is not motivating for the team and can cause valuable team members to take their careers elsewhere.

Rather than jamming people who are not otherwise functioning as a team into a room and telling them to finish the project if they want to be allowed to go back to their usual working spaces or location, organizations must focus on creating long-lived teams that develop trust in each other along with a shared and in-depth knowledge of the products, projects and systems they work on. 

Such teams will be more likely to deliver no matter where they are sitting. Along with trust in each other comes increased and sustained knowledge of the products or business functions the team is working to improve. This, in turn, fosters increased productivity as well as increased quality

Discouraging punitive co-location while lauding the productivity of remote workers is by no means a knock on co-located teams. Physical proximity definitely helps teams rapidly communicate and collaborate. When possible, it is always a great idea for teams to be long-lived and co-located. However, co-location of teams that are usually distributed or remote should never be forced or punitive. Whether co-located or distributed, successful teams are long-lived, cross-functional and aligned with business processes. Organizations do well to keep these teams together for as long as possible, regardless of where each team member sits.

 

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