Teams where members are separated by more than 30 meters are known to have a more complex and difficult work environment than face to face teams (see Kielser & Cummings’ review in Kielser & Hinds' book Distributed Work). These difficulties are not absolute, but can be managed by adjustments to the team process or technologies. My colleagues and I are in the early stages of building replicable approaches for making the best adjustments. We think one clear dimension to “tune” is how team members maintain situational awareness that can guide their interactions with other members.

Situational awareness can guide the workflow of the team. Members use their understanding of the situation to decide when to interrupt a teammate with a request for help or information, when to provide a teammate with the next step in a project or activity, when to offer help or information, etc. However, situational awareness is an early victim of distance, time shifting, and/or membership on multiple other teams.

Supporting situational awareness is not as simple as providing real-time feeds of other team members’ work. Supporting situational awareness must be done with an appreciation for information overload. John Seely Brown, long-time chief scientist of PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), recently noted that “expanding the center” of our perception is what makes us feel overwhelmed. His view is that if we try to expand our “peripheral view” (an interesting way of thinking about situational awareness), that we’re actually expanding the center of our view and so contributing to cognitive overload. If we can instead support our ability to absorb the periphery (true situational awareness), this is different and not overloading.

In a face to face team setting (is there such a thing?) we use our eyes and ears. In settings were we are not face to face we may use technology: The “open mic” policy of airplane pilots allows them to have a background understanding of the situation; others are studying the tools and outcomes of providing “awareness” tools for home settings. I note above that my colleagues and I are in the “early” stages of building tools and approaches for supporting situational awareness. We don’t have a clear answer. We are intrigued by services such as Twitter and Jaiku, where there are anecdotal reports of teams using these social network sites for serious team support. Some teams have members blogging about their daily progress. These are all interesting approaches that teams are self-designing and we look forward to learning more about the benefits. Perhaps the comment section to this posting can become a starting point for further conversations about successful approaches.