Distributed But Not Distant: Bringing Remote Teammates to the Table

Issue 63

Steelcase 360

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Steelcase's Global Business Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Knowledge work is becoming increasingly collaborative as we tackle more projects in groups, working side by side with colleagues. But what if your job requires collaboration with people you rarely, if ever, meet? Distributed teams are common in business, but that doesn’t make the essential challenge easier: How can widely dispersed people work well together? Better yet, how can they become true teammates whose work is greater than the sum of their individual efforts?

Stephen Gale thinks he’s found the answer. He’s director, sales and marketing communications for Steelcase’s Global Business Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a group of 350 people who provide product specification, renderings, and other sales and marketing support for various Steelcase offices and dealerships throughout Asia. “Our people in the Global Business Center work in teams that support particular markets. We wanted them to better understand those markets and get to really know the people they’re working with, whether they’re in Beijing, Mumbai or Melbourne,” says Gale.

Thus began the One Team initiative to turn distributed teams into tightly knit colleagues. About a third of the Kuala Lumpur teams received high-definition cameras and life-size monitors linked to corresponding equipment in the cities they support. These telepresence links are located at the end of each team’s FrameOne bench workstation,
and they’re always connected, always on.

“You look up, there’s your colleague in Sydney, Australia. It’s like they’re seated at the table with you even though they’re over 4,000  miles away. You don’t have to start up a computer, connect it, put in a password and all that. It’s real-time communication; you feel like you’re in the room together.”


This type of real-time telepresence link is sometimes called a “wormhole,” which is a hypothetical large-scale shortcut through space and time. Steelcase has been using real-time telepresence for a few years, but this is the company’s first large-scale implementation of the system.

Gale says they started seeing results in a matter of weeks. “It really simplifies the business. It eliminates putting out a phone call or message, hoping to reach someone, waiting for a response or even having to schedule a conversation. You just look up and see if they’re there and start talking.”

The Kuala Lumpur team tested a variety of hardware and software solutions before settling on telepresence. Training was minimal. Workers were told to consider the wormhole link another person or group at the table, and to use the same standards of office etiquette: consider what the person is doing before interrupting, keep your voice down, etc.

Eleven teams in Kuala Lumpur have wormhole links with colleagues in other cities and, given the growth of the company’s business in Asia, more links will likely be installed in the future.

“What it does is remove the demarcation between offices,” says Gale. “Before, the relationship between the people in the other cities and our folks in the Global Business Center was kind of a customer/supplier relationship. Now there’s more of a sense that we’re on the same team, we’re in this together, sharing wins and losses. People are getting to know each other better, they’re looking out for things rather than waiting for them. It’s like having your coworkers sitting right next to you.”

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