Distributed Teams Need Sufficient Communications Technology

In our previous article, we discussed the importance of sufficient hours of overlap in managing a team’s workspace.

As a reminder, here are the four components we see that need to be managed in a distributed team workspace.

  • Sufficient hours of overlap in everyone’s workday.
  • Sufficient communications technology that supports everyone equally in synchronous and asynchronous communication. This includes video, audio, and text.
  • The ability for team members to reach out to each other for questions or feedback and respond “quickly”. (working agreements and serendipitous communications)
  • Everyone has equal access and training for the technology.  Any person on a team can initiate a meeting, access the code and tests, update internal team notes, anyone can initiate a build.

Now we can talk about tools and technology if the team has working agreements in place regarding their hours of overlap.

Selecting Among Various Communications Possibilities

We have many possibilities for communications in teams. A collocated team might use a combination of turning-around-to-talk, chat, and working at the whiteboard.

Distributed teams can mimic the “turning around to talk” mode with high-quality video and audio.

We like to think about communication capabilities that a team needs for sufficient collaboration:

  • How effective is the channel for what we need to accomplish?
  • How “rich and natural” is this communication channel?
  • Can we enhance the communication channel to make it even better for our team’s needs?
© Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby

In the image, “Team Communication Possibilities,” we show the various possibilities.

What is Rich and Natural?

Notice that we called the various communications “rich and natural.” To understand the capabilities we need, let’s discuss two competing theories of communication.

The first is “rich” communication, which includes multiple simultaneous cues for the people communicating. When we have: high-quality audio and video; and can work together in real-time, we have the “richest” possible communication.  Rich communication offers us rapid feedback about the communication itself, the ability to focus on each other, and the ability to use natural language.

When we can see each other’s facial expressions and hear the tone in their voice, we have the most natural communication. Some tools offer avatars and text-based speech. That’s better than nothing but not as natural as seeing each other’s faces, with those expression cues.

So the key in tool selection is to provide an appropriate combination of tools that support rich and natural communication without overload participants with too many communication channels.

Select the Most Effective Channel for the People and the Work

When teams or team members need to explore decisions, we need the most rich and natural communication channel. For example, the two of us pair-write (every sentence) using Zoom. Zoom offers us an inexpensive and high-quality audio and video communication channel

As writers, we make decisions about every single sentence. If you pair on code or tests, you also might make decisions on every single line of code. If you try to pair over just a chat or text-based channel, you might miss each other’s cues. This occurs not only asynchronously but when teams try to collaborate synchronously via chat only.

When teams use an asynchronous chat channel, they often discover problems. They might not realize they haven’t shared assumptions about the work. Too often, they lose information.

When we see each other, we observe those “misses” in context. But it’s very easy to miss them and head off in different directions instead of collaborating on the goal at hand

When Johanna starts to rant and rave, Mark can see it. When Mark puts his hand on his chin, Johanna can see he is thinking and can give him space to think. Each of us has our own work preferences and the visual and audio cues allow us to write together faster and more effectively.

What if you don’t pair or mob to collaborate as a distributed team?  You will discover that your work is slower to complete. You will have rework. You might have much more WIP (Work in Progress).  That might be hard to understand until you try to pair or mob on the work.

You might think pairing or collaborating across distance “feels funny.”  It is unusual at first, but you focus with strong intent on the task because you focus together.  You are more likely to catch errors and misunderstandings because you have different perspectives on the work.

Use a minimal combination of tools that allows you to pair or mob on the work so that the team can complete work fast (and well).

Create and Use a Team Dedicated Backchannel

If you look back at the Team Communication Possibilities image,  you’ll see the effects of a dedicated team backchannel. That backchannel can enhance all the various synchronous communications so they are even more effective.

Collocated teams use a dedicated backchannel by default. Some would refer to this as tacit communication.  They ask each other questions easily. They often can overhear each other. Or, they are able to easily gather and discuss something that may not be clear to the entire team.  People can easily join and leave these conversations.

In a distributed team, the backchannel offers the ability for the team to create and manage its working agile norms:

  • Everyone’s ability to “lean into” the team and ask a question to clarify the intent of a feature or help with a problem.
  • See when the product or underlying assumptions change.
  • Assist in information dissemination in meetings to provide some background commentary or references or context on the conversation taking place (e.g “What was that API call again?”)
  • Everyone’s ability to “overhear” conversations between team members who may be debating design approaches.

The backchannel can help equalize everyone’s access to and use of team information. The immediacy of that information can create a team where the team has more wisdom than any of the people separately. (Assuming that the team has sufficient hours of overlap as we wrote in the previous article.)

Teams who are in the midst of storming or forming might need to integrate people and to establish psychological safety. In these cases, the backchannel helps:

  • New people feel safe to ask questions.
  • Everyone has the ability in meetings to ask questions even if they feel uncomfortable breaking into the audio conversation.
  • The team discovers where they have stale information.
  • People “overhear” various conversations and feel safe to add to the discussion.

We recommend the team use a text dedicated backchannel separate from any of the team’s specific audio or video tools. That way, the backchannel is always available. The information persists.

That persistence of information in a dedicated backchannel allows people to review their conversation history. The conversation history helps team members see when and where they made decisions. If team members still have questions, they can ask the questions and often refer back to that specific decision.

Many collocated teams use the serendipity of a quick team meeting to make and review their decisions. In our experience, those teams would also benefit from a dedicated text backchannel to see when and why they made their decisions.

Team Workplaces Include Communications Choices

When teams use a variety of rich and natural communications technology, they can minimize their distribution challenges. We find teams need good quality audio and video for many meetings and the ability to work together. Teams also need a dedicated backchannel that allows free-wheeling discussion.

When distributed teams manage their communications technology, they establish rules for successful collaboration.  They can learn together. They can deliver together. They can inspect-and-adapt their approaches together like any agile team.

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