Communication Communication and Distributed Work
Claartje ter Hoeven, Jennifer Gibbs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0214


Scholars have been studying distributed work since the 1990s. The proliferation of new communication technologies such as e-mail, computer conferencing, instant messaging, and enterprise social media has enabled and made commonplace geographically dispersed work arrangements such as global virtual teams, mobile work, and telework that span time and space and allow for collaboration at a distance. While distributed work is an interdisciplinary topic that is studied by scholars in management, information systems, and communication (among others), this review is bounded to focus primarily on research by communication scholars or in dealing with communication phenomena. Distributed work is of great interest to communication scholars as it highlights how communication processes such as collaboration, knowledge sharing, and relationship formation are enacted across geographical, temporal, cultural, and organizational boundaries.

Proximity and Distance

Working physically apart from one’s coworkers is a fundamentally different experience than working collocated in the same office. The readings in this section all focus on the experience of proximity versus distance and its consequences for collaborative work. Working remotely brings about many communication challenges that impact team dynamics and individual work relationships. While computer-mediated communication may pose challenges in this regard, it also allows for new forms of collaboration across distance. Most of this research regards proximity as beneficial and studies the challenges of conducting distributed work. Hinds and Kiesler 2002 provides comprehensive reviews of the research on proximity as well as thorough coverage of the broader topic of distributed work. Another early review, Olson and Olson 2000, synthesizes the early research on group collaboration, comparing collocated and distributed work and concluding that distance poses challenges for collaborative work. The challenges of sharing knowledge across distances have been well documented: Sole and Edmondson 2002 finds that “situated knowledge” is harder to share across locations in distributed teams, while Cramton, et al. 2007 finds that distributed collaborators are more likely to rely on faulty attributions than collocated teammates because of their “situational invisibility.” Research has identified other interpersonal challenges as well: distributed teams are characterized by greater task and interpersonal conflict (Hinds and Mortensen 2005) as well as status differences based on physical location, as the remote site (Metiu 2006) and physically isolated workers are perceived as lower in status (Bartel, et al. 2012). While many studies focus on physical measures of distance, researchers are starting to examine subjective perceptions of distance as captured in concepts such as perceived proximity, as in Wilson, et al. 2008, and electronic propinquity, as in Walther and Bazarova 2007. While face-to-face communication is often assumed to be most effective, studies such as Birnholtz, et al. 2012 find that even collocated workers take advantage of the ambiguity and control afforded by communication technologies to manage impressions electronically rather than face-to-face.

  • Bartel, C. A., A. Wrzesniewski, and B. M. Wiesenfeld. 2012. Knowing where you stand: Physical isolation, perceived respect, and organizational identification among virtual employees. Organization Science 23.3: 743–757.

    This article examines the relationship between the degree of virtual employees’ physical isolation and their perceived respect in the organization, finding that this relationship is negative and that lower respect leads to lower organizational identification among physically isolated employees. This piece is important in calling attention to the role of physical isolation, and the ways in which status-based perceptions shape virtual employees’ organizational identification.

  • Birnholtz, J., G. Dixon, and J. Hancock. 2012. Distance, ambiguity and appropriation: Structures affording impression management in a collocated organization. Computers in Human Behavior 28:1028–1035.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.01.005

    This study challenges notions of computer-mediated communication as detrimental due to its leanness by finding that even workers in a collocated setting take advantage of the ambiguity and control afforded by communication technologies in ways that provide benefits to impression management.

  • Cramton, C. D., K. L. Orvis, and J. M. Wilson. 2007. Situation invisibility and attribution in distributed collaborations. Journal of Management 33:525–546.

    This article contributes to the literature on knowledge-sharing challenges in distributed collaborations by introducing the term “situation invisibility” (in which there is little opportunity to observe proximal environmental stimuli), finding that distributed collaborators are more likely than collocated teammates to attribute negative partner behavior to internal dispositional attributions rather than situational attributions (which are invisible to them), resulting in negative relational outcomes.

  • Hinds, P. J., and S. Kiesler, eds. 2002. Distributed work. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    This edited volume contains a number of chapters on the role of proximity in distributed work and the challenges of conducting collaborative distributed work. The extensive research reviewed here tends to agree that proximity and face-to-face communication are beneficial for collaborative work. The authors consider the relative benefits and drawbacks of face-to-face and mediated communication in distributed work and identify social as well as technological solutions for conducting distributed work.

  • Hinds, P. J., and M. Mortensen. 2005. Understanding conflict in geographically distributed teams: The moderating effects of shared identity, shared context, and spontaneous communication. Organization Science 16:290–307.

    This article examines conflict in distributed versus collocated teams and finds that distributed teams are characterized by greater task and interpersonal conflict than collocated teams. Shared identity is found to moderate the effect of distribution on interpersonal conflict, and shared context moderates the effect of distribution on task conflict. Finally, spontaneous communication is found to help facilitate conflict management.

  • Metiu, A. 2006. Owning the code: Status closure in distributed groups. Organization Science 17:418–435.

    This study shows that status differences and geographic distribution reinforce one another in distributed teams to affect team collaboration, such that the remote site is perceived as lower status. The higher-status group engages in informal status closure strategies that work to deepen the perceived status differences between locations. This article calls attention to status differences among locations and the ways in which they are produced and reinforced.

  • Olson, G. M., and J. S. Olson. 2000. Distance matters. Human-Computer Interaction 15.2: 139–178.

    This early review article synthesizes a decade of research on group collaboration, comparing collocated and distributed work. The authors conclude that “distance matters” and poses challenges for collaborative work. Drawing on concepts of common ground, work coupling, collaboration readiness, and collaboration technology readiness, the authors propose that distributed work will be most successful in groups with high common ground, loosely coupled work, and readiness for both collaboration and collaboration technology.

  • Sole, D., and A. Edmondson. 2002. Situated knowledge and learning in dispersed teams. British Journal of Management 13:17–34.

    This article introduces the term “situated knowledge,” which refers to knowledge that is embedded in particular geographical locales and is often taken for granted, and proposes it as a key challenge facing distributed teams. It finds that understanding and participating in locale-specific practices can facilitate problem solving and learning, but only if team members identify and engage situated knowledge.

  • Walther, J. B., and N. N. Bazarova. 2007. Misattribution in virtual groups: The effects of member distribution on self-serving bias and partner blame. Human Communication Research 33:1–26.

    This study tests the theory of electronic propinquity (the psychological feeling of nearness) by examining how the availability of alternate communication media, media bandwidth, information complexity, and users’ communication skills affect propinquity and satisfaction with different communication channels. The findings help to explain discrepancies in prior research on computer-mediated communication.

  • Wilson, J. M., M. B. O’Leary, A. Metiu, and Q. R. Jett. 2008. Perceived proximity in virtual work: Explaining the paradox of far-but-close. Organization Studies 29:979–1002.

    This conceptual piece advances our knowledge of proximity in virtual work by shifting the focus from objective to subjective notions of proximity. The authors propose a theoretical model that explains how it is possible for collaborators to be physically distant but feel psychologically close (and vice versa). Communication and social identification processes work as mechanisms to foster perceptions of proximity, as well as individual and socio-organizational factors.

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