The Dangers of Distance Collaboration



It has become incredibly popular nowadays to have a team spread out geographically, and collaborating remotely. There are obvious benefits - money is saved from office space, transport, light, heating etc. However, there’s some major downsides which people fail to consider.

Shared understanding

When people collaborate remotely, they need a shared understanding about what they’re working on. This usually involves falling back on existing paradigms about how a product should look and perform. For instance, if I was collaborating remotely with some colleagues on the design of a chair, and I asked each person to take care of one part, you can almost be guaranteed that the final product would be the most generic, unexciting chair in existence.


A vaunted example of distance collaboration is Linux. However, it suffers from the same difficulties as the chair. If I’m sitting at the centre of a vast web of collaborators, and I somehow need to distribute tasks to each of them, then the fastest way to do so would be to look at an existing product and break it down in to its constituent elements. For instance, if I wanted to create a word processor, then that wouldn’t be too hard - I could break down Microsoft Office into chunks of functionality, and people would have a fair idea about how they all fit together. But if I wanted to build something fundamentally different then that would be incredibly hard, if not impossible, because people would have nothing to refer to.


This is one of the fundamental challenges of distance collaboration. Networks of people don’t create innovative products unless they’re capably managed. If the intention is to build an innovative product then the vision has to be incredibly strong and well understood, otherwise people will fall back on existing paradigms and create a generic product.