Remote workers should ditch long email chains for bursts of communication

When it comes to problem-solving as a team, says Chris Riedl, constant communication is actually a bad thing. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Want to know the secret to effective team work? Hint: It’s all about timing.

When it comes to problem-solving as a team, constant communication is actually a bad thing. That’s one finding from recent research by Northeastern assistant professor Chris Riedl. He found that bursts of messages were good for team performance and led to better quality of work. This could mean that the common practice of checking and responding to email consistently throughout the day is detrimental to completing successful projects. Or at least less effective than what Ridel calls “bursty” communication.

What does “bursty” communication look like? Imagine a group messaging platform where people fire off questions, responses, and ideas in a cluster and then go radio-silent for a relatively long period of time as they work on the task at hand. The platform itself doesn’t matter, Riedl said. But the timing does.

“Bursty really means there are these ups and downs and flows of a lot of communication and then a little communication,” said Riedl, who holds joint appointments in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business and the College of Computer and Information Science.

To determine that bursty communication leads to superior outcomes, Riedl studied the messaging activity of 260 software developers working remotely across 50 different countries. The developers were divided into 52 five-person teams, all of which were given the same task: create an algorithm that recommends the best items to include in a medical kit aboard a space shuttle.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The teams had 10 days to develop their algorithm with no additional support or instructions. Once time was up, Riedl and his collaborator, Anita Woolley from Carnegie Mellon University, analyzed the final products and scored their performance. The researchers also had access to all the messages shared among teams. Riedl and Woolley found teams that communicated in bursts produced better algorithms.

“This is quite counter to the common-sense assumption that constant communication is a good thing,” Riedl said. “Teams that have these bursts of activity do better than those that have the trickle approach of communication.”

Riedl also discovered that teams benefited from sharing diverse information. This feeds into a larger conversation about diversity in the workplace, Riedl said.

“We were able to clarify that it might not be specifically the diversity of people themselves, but the information they share that really affects performance,” Riedl said.

The research also calls into question the commonly held belief that working from home leads to lower productivity and quality of work, Riedl said. The study shows it may not be the remote setting that matters as much as the communication style—the burstier, the better.