Distance Matters: Copresence vs Technology-Mediated Interaction

Olson & Olson argue in this article that “[t]here are characteristics of face-to-face human interactions, particularly the space–time contexts in which such interactions take place, that the emerging technologies are either pragmatically or logically incapable of replicating” (p. 140-1).  For example, though one study showed no difference in the output produced by a face-to-face (collocated) group as compared to one working at a distance, nevertheless “the process of [the distance group’s] work changed, however, to require more clarification and more management overhead…” (p. 152).  This connects to our choice of Reigeluth’s valued outputs, including efficiency. Thus these author feel, as do I, that certain types of work (and I would also say learning) are inefficient when attempted at a distance.

The authors refer to one study that found that collocated groups had double the function points per unit of staff time as corporate average (p. 145).  They attribute this to factors such as the fluidity of participation (p. 146), “the spatiality of human interaction” (p. 146), and the fact that the teams had worked together long-term and held established working habits (p. 148).  Olson & Olson note several key characteristics of collocated synchronous interactions (p. 149), namely: rapid feedback (allowing quick corrections), multiple channels (allowing redundancy, as well as many ways to convey subtle or complex message), personal information (enabling participants to judge the characteristics of the source), nuanced information (allowing very small differences in meaning to be conveyed and information to be easily modulated), shared local context (enabling easy socializing and mutual understanding), informal “hall” time (making possible opportunistic information exchanges and important social bonding), individual control (providing rich, flexible monitoring of how all are reacting), implicit cues (wherein the natural operations of human attention provide access to important contextual information), and spatiality of reference (whereby both people and ideas can be referred to spatially).

Despite this judgment, the authors “focus on the sociotechnical conditions required for effective distance work and bring together the results with four key concepts: common ground, coupling of work, collaboration readiness, and collaboration technology readiness. Groups with high common ground and loosely coupled work, with readiness both for collaboration and collaboration technology, have a chance at succeeding with remote work” (p. 139).

  • Common ground: the knowledge people have in common, and are aware that they have in common. “[W]e construct common ground from whatever cues we have at the moment. The fewer cues we have, the harder the work in constructing it, and the more likely misinterpretations will occur” (p. 158).  Since distance interaction provides fewer clues, it is harder for such teams to establish common ground. “The more common ground people can establish, the easier the communication, the greater the productivity. If people have established little common ground, allow them to develop it, either by traveling and getting to know each other or by using as high-bandwidth channel as possible” (p. 161).
  • Coupling in Work: “Tightly coupled work is work that strongly depends on the talents of collections of workers and is nonroutine, even ambiguous. Components of the work are highly interdependent. The work typically requires frequent, complex communication among the group members, with short feedback loops and multiple streams of information” (p. 162).  They note that “tightly coupled work is very difficult to do remotely” and therefore advise “design[ing] the work organization so that ambiguous, tightly coupled work is collocated” (p. 163).
  • Collaboration readiness: They state that “one should not attempt to introduce groupware and remote technologies in organizations and communities that do not have a culture of sharing and collaboration” (p. 164).
  • Technology readiness:  Their advice is that “advanced technologies should be introduced in small steps” (p. 166).

For my interests, the most important argument is the efficiency one which Olson & Olson make, that “[t]here are characteristics of face-to-face human interactions … that the emerging technologies are either pragmatically or logically incapable of replicating” (p. 140-1).


Olson, G.M. & Olson, J. S. (2000). Distance matters. Human–Computer Interaction, 15 (2): 139–178. http://www.informaworld.com/index/784767943.pdf.


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