The Place of Face-to-Face Communication in Distributed Work


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Information Society | Usage & Uptake


Most distributed work requires mediated communication, but the appropriate use of mediated, as compared with face-to-face communication, is not well understood. From our ethnographic research on workplace communication, we characterize unique aspects of face-to-face communication. Face to face communication supports touch, shared activities, eating and drinking together, as well as informal interactions and attention management. We argue that these activities are crucial for sustaining the social relationships that make distributed work possible. We contrast these social aspects of communication with the informational aspects emphasized by traditional communication theories, arguing that social linkages are a precondition of information exchange. We also document the disadvantages of face to face communication – that it can be disruptive, expensive and effortful – describing when mediated communication is preferable. We discuss the design of “media ecologies” that balance the advantages and disadvantages of mediated and face to face communication to provide cost-effective solutions for communication in distributed organizations.