Bringing Employees Closer: The Effect of Proximity on Communication When Teams Function under Time Pressure Darrel S. F. Chong, Wendelien van Eerde, Christel G. Rutte, and Kah Hin Chai
Some studies have assumed close proximity to improve team communication on the premise that reduced physical distance increases the chance of contact and information exchange. However, research showed that the relationship between team proximity and team communication is not always straightforward and may depend on some contextual conditions. Hence, this study was designed with the purpose of examining how a contextual condition like time pressure may influence the relationship between team proximity and team communication. In this study, time pressure was conceptualized as a two-dimensional construct: challenge time pressure and hindrance time pressure, such that each has different moderating effects on the proximity–communication relationship.
The research was conducted with 81 new product development (NPD) teams (437 respondents) in Western Europe (Belgium, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands). These teams functioned in short-cycled industries and developed innovative products for the consumer, electronic, semiconductor, and medical sectors. The unit of analysis was a team, which could be from a single-team or a multiteam project. Results showed that challenge time pressure moderates the relationship between team proximity and team communication such that this relationship improves for teams that experience high rather than low challenge time pressure. Hindrance time pressure moderates the relation- ship between team proximity and team communication such that this relationship improves for teams that experience low rather than high hindrance time pressure.
Our findings contribute to theory in two ways. First, this study showed that challenge and hindrance time pressure differently influences the benefits of team proximity toward team communication in a particular work context. We found that teams under high hindrance time pressure do not benefit from close proximity, given the natural tendency for premature cognitive closure and the use of avoidance coping tactics when problems surface. Thus, simply reducing physical distances is unlikely to promote communication if motivational or human factors are neglected. Second, this study demonstrates the strength of the challenge–hindrance stressor framework in advancing theory and explaining inconsistencies. Past studies determined time pressure by considering only its levels without distinguishing the type of time pressure. We suggest that this study might not have been able to uncover the moderating effects of time pressure if we had conceptualized time pressure in the conventional way.
C ommunication is a critical process for innova-tion teams to achieve their goals successfully(Ancona and Caldwell, 1992; Keller, 2001). Functional experts working in a team require a meeting of minds for information to be effectively exchanged and used for goal achievement. Among the strategies that have thus been deployed to facilitate team communica- tion, colocation is frequently pursued in research and practice (e.g., Allen, 1977; Hoegl and Proserpio, 2004; Keller and Holland, 1983; Te’eni, 2001; Van den Bulte and Moenaert, 1998). Although much work has shown team proximity, which in this study refers to the degree of
closeness in terms of physical distance, to enhance team communication and team performance, the outcomes of the studies were at times inconsistent. Importantly, several researchers have found a weak or no relationship between team proximity and team outcomes (Conrath, 1973; Kahn and McDonough, 1997; Keller, 1986; Kessler, 2000; Sethi, 2000; Sethi and Nicholson, 2001). This suggests that the association could be more complex than initially theorized. Because team proximity has been identified as a strategy to improve communication (e.g., Te’eni, 2001), further empirical research is needed to explain those inconsistencies. Furthermore, the increased use of geographically distributed multisite project teams (Victor and Stephens, 1994) also heightens the need for effective colocated teams and hence this line of research, given that success of any multisite project is contingent on the effectiveness of its local-site teams.