Ex Machina: Jack Graham's Blog


The Worklife of a Software Business Analyst, Unlicensed Futurist, and Tech Wonk-of-all-Trades

The Unfashionable Truth about Online Collaboration

Potsdam Conference roundtable

The Potsdam Conference: Against all odds, we won World War II without Basecamp.

It was at hour 1.5 of the scrum that I began to suspect my virtual teammates of being asleep. Why was a scrum call taking an hour and a half?

Why the endless questions about topics already documented?

And seriously: was the bubbling noise on the one dev’s phone line just him finishing off a Big Gulp, or him hitting a bong? (My suspicion echoed the study of business professors Rockmann & Northcraft, who found that remote collaborators have difficulty building trust.)

All in all, I’ve decided that some skepticism regarding virtual teams is a healthy thing. Face time works. According to urbanist Edward Glaeser, that’s why we invented cities in the first place.

Cut to two weeks later. We flew people to Boston, locked everyone in a basement conference room, and spent a week having our own Potsdam Conference. Suddenly we all had to look each other in the eye each day. Suddenly, things were working.

This simple truth has gotten lost. A friend of mine worked in a model shop at a large handset producer where designers never left their desks, instead using bluetooth headsets to communicate — even with people sitting in the same room! I spent some time at a large Boston agency where the production manager two floors down looked startled every time I showed up in her doorway instead of calling or e-mailing.

At the same time, I’ve worked on virtual teams that performed very well.

The problem is cultural. If your organization isn’t ready for online collaboration, don’t use it. And don’t expect teams who’ve never met each other face to face to play well with each other. People lie more over e-mail, as one researcher found out.

Nowadays, it’s heresy to claim that online collaboration is a bad thing. The problem is that  organizations rush into it ill-prepared. But I found some rays of hope in this Standford Business post on time zone-spanning teams. Their suggestions boil down to:

  • Build trust. Question to ask: does your team have a bond of trust, and if not, how can you build it? (If the answer is ropes courses & trust falls, try again).
  • Have processes that correct for the limitations of online collaboration. Question to ask: do your workflows, meeting rules, and sign-off processes correct for missed non-verbal cues, large groups sitting together dominating conference calls with remote people, and the like?
  • Foster adaptation instead of throwing workers willy-nilly into virtual teams. Question to ask: is your team sufficiently savvy with the collaboration tools to be used? Can you suggest conventions of use that keep people from being overwhelmed by the new mode of collaboration?

I’ve promised myself never to have another scrum call like the one I describe above. There’s no reason you should, either. Prep your team before you commit to virtual collaboration. And if that doesn’t work, pull the plug, and show up in someone’s office.


Category: project wonk, tech culture

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