In part 2 of this series, I talk about why face time is essential; the two types of realtime communication tool which should form the backbone of your day to day interactions as a dispersed team; and why instant messaging can do more harm than good.
If you missed Part 1 of this series, you may want to go back and read it.
A little face-to-face communication goes a long way with remote work. A day spent working with a teammate in person can change the whole character of your subsequent online interactions. Before, they were a screen name and an avatar. After working with them in person, with every instant message or email they send you’ll have a mental picture of their tone and mannerisms to go with it. People become more real and three-dimensional when we interact with them up close, in a way that stays with us long after we go our separate ways.
When feasible, I like to meet up at a common location with my remote coworkers for a few days or as much as a week at the start of a project. After that I prefer to meet again up at intervals of about once every three months or so.
One way to coordinate meetups is to pick a professional conference that you are all interested in attending, and schedule some time around the conference to work as a collocated team.
If meeting in person isn’t an option, video chat is the next best thing. Skype works well for this, except that it only supports one-to-one video conferencing. If you are chatting between more than two locations, you can use a service like TokBox or Adobe ConnectNow which supports group video conferences. Make a point of having a video call with your teammates at least once a week, in order to refresh your mental image of them as actual people rather than disembodied voices.
Face-to-face conversation is great for gelling as a team, but for your day-to-day interactions you’ll need a more casual communications tool. This is where your live text chat tool comes in. Start with Campfire: it’s dirt-simple to set up, works on any computer with access to the internet, and will log conversations for later reference.
You will use other conversation media as well, such as Skype and email. But the team Campfire chat room should be the your first choice, and the place where other types of communication are coordinated.
Minimize your use of instant messaging, such as Google Talk or Skype text chat. Every IM you send to one team member and not the others fragments the team’s shared mental context a little bit more. Even if you are just pasting an error message or a bit of code to the person you are currently working with, go ahead and stick it on Campfire. You never know when that pasted error message will jog someone else’s memory. And you won’t have to figure out which IM log it’s in if you need to find the same snippet again two days later.
Think of it this way: if the whole team were together around a common table, you wouldn’t be able to help overhearing snippets of the other team members’ conversations unless you took deliberate action (such as wearing headphones). Think of Campfire as the team table. If someone needs to focus they can always do the virtual equivalent of donning headphones: mute and minimize or even close Campfire for a while. Don’t try to be a gatekeeper deciding what the other team members do and don’t need to hear. Put everything out in the open and let them decide what parts are useful.
Part 2 Conclusion
There are a wealth of realtime communications tools available to the dispersed team. Unfortunately, this very variety of options can contribute to fragmentation of the team’s shared knowledge. A good video/audio conferencing tool and a live text chat tool are all you really need to get started. Pick your tools and stick to them unless you have a compelling reason not to.
Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll delve more deeply into remote communication tools and patterns.