If many or all of your employees have been working remotely, you're probably concerned about the loss of actual face time. Not just in terms of leadership, but in those formal and (theoretically all-important) casual interactions and collaborations and ad hoc problem-solving moments among team members.

(You know, like when Marcy runs into Mark in the hallway, he shares his struggles with a project, and her "outsider" perspective provides the aha! breakthrough Mark desperately needs.)

Fortunately, technology offers substitutes. Slack. Teams. Zoom. Trello. Asana. Clockwise. Calendly. Instant meetings, whether formal or informal, mean instant collaboration, instant problem-solving, and instant creativity.

Or not.

For one thing, meetings are definitely overrated. One 2012 Virginia Tech study found that meetings make people dumber: When people were placed in small groups and asked to solve problems, their individual IQs dropped by an average of 15 percent. 

The problem? The feedback, even if only implicit, that meetings are intended to enhance.

Examples: People who feel like a "junior" member of a group experience a temporary decrease in IQ. (As in most situations, confidence matters a lot.) People who feel their contributions won't be valued experience a temporary decrease in IQ.

And people whose contributions have been criticized, however gently, experience a temporary decrease in IQ. (Which then causes that person to feel "junior," and that their contributions are less valued, making it even less likely they'll contribute meaningfully the next time.)

In short: Not only are large meetings a waste of time for most of the participants, large meetings make it extremely unlikely to get the best from most of the people who participate.

Especially where solving problems is concerned.

A 2015 Boston College study explored the value of connectivity and information flow in large teams. Fifty-one teams of 16 people each were given the same task: to discover and piece together clues that would help predict a fictional terrorist attack. 

Some teams had individuals share information with the entire team; think one big group chat. Other teams required individuals to only share information with one or two other team members; those individuals could then pass that information received on to one or two more people if they chose.

As you would expect, the "mass communication" teams did better at gathering and sharing clues, and as a result all had access to the same "data." 

But then things fell apart. Instead of struggling to agree on a common theory of how the attack would take place--you would assume more people naturally means more opinions--the opposite happened: Those teams quickly settled on one (usually incorrect) theory. 

The problem wasn't diversity of opinion. The problem was groupthink.

Because members of the less-connected teams couldn't collaborate as easily, they were less likely to reach a quick consensus. They had time to think. To create their own theories. To brainstorm on their own. To kick around and refine ideas with one or two people before presenting them to the entire group. 

As the researchers write, "Dense clustering encourages members of a network to generate more diverse information but discourages them from generating diverse theories; that is, clustering promotes exploration in information space but decreases exploration in solution space."

Or in non-researcher-speak, brainstorming and initial problem-solving is much more effective when people first come up with ideas by themselves, or with one or two others.

That will lead to greater diversity in ideas, better analysis of the pros and cons of those ideas, and much greater odds of the larger group eventually identifying the best idea.

How to Make Your Remote Teams More Effective

Of course, that doesn't mean you should do away with meetings altogether. Information still must be shared. Collaboration still must occur. Problems still must be solved.

Just be thoughtful about how you make those things happen.

Consider:

  • Holding one short, daily "all-hands" meeting to provide brief updates, status checks, etc.
  • Creating digital bulletin boards (Trello, MS Flow, Asana, etc.) so everyone on your team knows who is working on what, and how it's going.
  • Clustering meetings instead of spreading them throughout the day so everyone can take advantage of large blocks of uninterrupted work time.
  • Creating collaboration "windows" within which people are available for chats, calls, etc. (Very few conversations need to happen right now; too many people mistake "urgent" for important.)

Then your meetings will be more productive.

And so will your employees. Engagement and responsibility aren't created by constant connectivity. Ownership starts with a feeling of control, independence, and authority.

People care the most when they feel trusted to make things happen.

And when they have the time -- the uninterrupted time -- to make things happen.