An email popped into my mailbox last week from the Harvard Business Review with the title “Virtual Collaboration is fast becoming the norm, are you ready?” – the same day a colleague sent me a link to a New York Times article about research Google has done into what characterises its most effective collaborative teams. Taken together they highlight a paradox of the modern workplace: just as technology is making it cheap and easy for groups of people from different organisations to work together across continents, research is showing that what makes collaborative groups most effective is intangible things like ‘psychological safety’ and ‘social sensitivity’, that are difficult if not impossible to create remotely.

The Google research (codenamed Project Aristotle) reviewed the working of 180 groups across the organisation. It found that “there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the team equation didn’t seem to matter.’’ But what did matter was the ‘how’ – how people behaved towards each other and the dynamics that created in the group. Specifically, they identified two common characteristics of the highest performers which all showed:

  1. Good “conversational turn taking” i.e. everyone in the group had roughly equal airtime to express their views whilst others listened.
  2. High levels of “social sensitivity’’- group members were sensitive to the spoken and unspoken messages coming from their colleagues – they could quickly and accurately recognise subtle nuances of perspective and empathise with others in the group.

The article describes these characteristics as promoting a feeling of what Prof Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety” for group members – “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”.

Reflecting on this gave me pause for thought when reading the latest HBR publication on virtual collaboration. It describes a world in which in increasing numbers of us are working remotely from our colleagues and were team interactions are done online in one form or another. It highlights a lot of very sensible measures you can take to “set expectations”, “create codes of conduct” and “keep your colleagues’ attention over email”. These are surely necessary foundations collaboration but on their own can’t be sufficient to create the sort of ‘psychological safety’ and trust that Google finds in the best groups. However sophisticated online conference and social media technology gets, screen based interactions dramatically reduce the range of sensory inputs that people get from a conventional meeting, and do away with all the side conversations in coffee breaks too. And so picking up the subtle clues that enable an empathetic response becomes difficult if not impossible.

If as the Google research points out, the most effective collaborations need groups in which people can really listen hard – not just to the words being said but to all the murmurs and grimaces of reaction around the room, and can notice when someone else is wanting to make a point but struggling to find the words to voice it – then technology cannot be the only answer.

In fact, spending a fortune on technology expecting this to solve your collaboration problems and enable groups to make better more informed decisions might just be an expensive exercise in wishful thinking. In my own experience on-line interactions in virtual teams are a perfectly OK way of carrying out what I’d call transactional collaborative activity. But if you want to get the best collaboration, the best decision making, and the highest amount of innovation from a group, then follow Google’s lead and invest in building listening skills and empathy with your colleagues.