Face-to-face communication provides the most information, as it includes non-verbal communication cues such as facial expressions in addition to verbal content. Virtual teams rely on technologies such as telephones, email, collaboration sites and web conferencing tools. These technologies, while powerful, generally can’t provide as much non-verbal content. Advances in high-end videoconferencing technology allow virtual team members to feel as if they are in the same room, but the cost may still be prohibitive for day-to-day use by all but the largest organizations (Lojeski & Reilly, 2008).
Veteran agile coach Gene Gendel has experienced the challenges of communication within virtual agile teams and told me “Short lead and cycle time, frequent delivery to market and fast-paced incremental development are all heavily dependent on close team collaboration and quick executive decisions, which might become hostage to the lack of face-to-face communication. In such cases, effective use of technologically innovative virtual collaboration tools becomes paramount.”
Andy Singleton believes the use of electronic collaboration tools has changed communication preferences for all teams. He observed “It seems to me collocated teams are relying more on chat and comments, rather than audio and video and in-person meetings. The trend is very strong among young people who are moving from calls to texting, and from visits to Facebook comments.”
Andy also said although electronic communication may not be as rich as in-person meetings, it better accommodates the kind of multitasking that is typical of today’s project teams and allows individuals to reach out to more people. He believes conference calls which include entire teams are “Basically a chance for the boss to dump problems on a group of people that aren’t related to the specific problem.” He recommends limiting call participation, believing “It’s a great idea to line up calls with SPECIFIC people who are related to the problem. Then people will pay attention and appreciate it.”
Karen Lojeski told me that communication methods must be carefully considered. She said that “We’re like a cork bobbing on the ocean” when it comes to managing the high volume of communication typical of the modern knowledge worker. To prevent workers from feeling even more disconnected as the result of all of the electronic communication chatter, she recommends that “techno-dexterity” becomes a core competency. By this, she means we all have to become adept at choosing the right form of communication for the right situation.
I’ve learned about the tradeoffs between asynchronous technologies like email, texting and chat and synchronous technologies like conferencing and in-person meetings from my own experience managing projects. For example, competing demands for attention sometimes resulted in people not seeing or responding to important messages until it’s too late. Face-to-face meetings and conference calls involving entire teams consumed a lot of people time and their frequency and duration needed to be managed carefully. It wasn’t always easy to determine exactly which team members were affected by a problem or issue.
When a subset of a team meets to discuss a topic, it’s best to report the results and key decisions to the entire team to ensure everyone is aware of them. Conference recording technology can offer an advantage. Team members who can’t attend conferences can replay recordings when they have time. Recordings can be forwarded to other team members and stakeholders to keep them informed or allow them to go back and review key parts of discussions.
Schwaber and Beedle (2002) addressed communication tradeoffs when they created Scrum, a popular agile product development framework. The rules of Scrum mandate a “daily Scrum” meeting which lasts between fifteen and thirty minutes. Team members report on what they accomplished since the last meeting, what they will do next, and any obstacles they face. Any other team meetings are ad hoc, involving only the affected team members. This promotes a pattern of brief but tightly managed daily contact.
I believe project managers need to work closely with teams throughout a project to establish, monitor and modify communication channels. Team members need to be given adequate time to handle communications in addition to their work. They must also be held accountable according to agreed-upon team rules to communicate progress, questions and issues appropriately. Teams should periodically review and revise their communication methods during projects to find the right balance and eliminate dysfunctional channels.
Wherever possible, projects employing virtual teams should budget reserve or contingency funds for some face-to-face gatherings of representatives from different locations (Lojeski & Reilly, 2008). These funds could be allocated for project kickoffs, post-release retrospectives, to gather key resources to resolve serious issues and problems, or even celebrations. Gene Gendel agrees strongly with this, saying “Even if permanent collocation is completely not an option, short-term collocation of key people is still highly desirable.”
Andy Singleton encourages his virtual teams to get together in person when needed. He applies the same principle of selectivity for managing conference calls, feeling it makes those meetings more meaningful. Managers must provide flexible communication options, and then train, support and trust teams to make good choices based on circumstances. Karen Lojeski told me she advocates providing project managers with the ability to visit remote staff as needed to foster their connection with the rest of the team. She justifies this as a necessary “Virtual Distance management” expense.
Beyond The Telecommuting Debate
Ironically, Yahoo is making a big bet on face-to-face communication in an era where many workers may be less likely to engage in office or hallway conversations than ever before. Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle researches the use of modern communication technologies and social media. She reported (2012) more and more office workers are eschewing conversation in favor of electronic communication using email, texting and social media. Although she does not note whether these workers are engaged in collaborative activities, her experience is clearly aligned with Andy Singleton’s own observations about the teams he leads.
Turkle (2012) recounted that even an employee who complained about the lack of talking in his office admitted that he, too, prefers to communicate through technology. If these trends are as widespread as Turkle believes, Yahoo might encourage staff to periodically turn off all devices and spend more time talking with their colleagues. We need to be mindful that face-to-face communication provides more than just content. It can enhance trust and respect and reinforce shared goals and vision.
Reses doesn’t specifically address any of the other collaboration-enhancing factors cited above. The memo says “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together”, which suggests Yahoo management is mindful other improvements need to be made (Swisher, 2013). Their decision regarding their work environment is clear. Hopefully, they realize that people, goals, vision, trust, respect, rules, safety and support are as important as environment.
Project managers have to understand all of these factors as well. They need to be ready to step up and unite their teams. As Karen Lojeski said, “Project managers have to become Virtual Distance managers.” If she is correct in believing that the old management techniques have to be changed, project managers will be well-positioned to create new, more effective techniques to promote collaboration and innovation.
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References and Bibliography
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