When Mark Kilby and I wrote From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams, we discussed the fact that we no longer needed physical face-to-face interactions. Instead, we needed high-fidelity virtual interactions.
(High-fidelity virtual interactions didn't exist when the guys got together at Snowbird to write the Agile Manifesto for Software Development.)
The Allen Curve explains a lot about distance and communication frequency for “in-person” teams. (See How To Understand Your Team Type: Collocated, Satellite, Cluster, Nebula.) However, the curve doesn't explain how to create high-fidelity virtual communications. (For more information about communication options, see Distributed Teams Need Sufficient Communications Technology.)
I'm not shy. I'll take a stab at what we need for high-fidelity virtual communications.
Components of High-Fidelity Virtual Communications
When we are face-to-face, we can have high-fidelity communications with our:
- Eyes, to see each other and a common workspace, such as a whiteboard.
- Ears, to hear each other and hear the “music” of the words.
- Hands, to use equipment and test the product, such as with paper prototypes. And to physically connect with each other (in a respectful way).
- And our noses for odors.
We have trouble with high-fidelity communications under these circumstances:
- Vision: blind people can't see. And if we don't have a useful workspace, it might not matter if we can see. (Do you have pillars in your conference rooms?) The workspace prevents us from visualizing together.
- Audio. I'm deaf in one ear. There are way too many “open” workspaces where I can't hear the person next to me. That's for two reasons: the room is too noisy so my tinnitus acts up. Or I literally can hear people across the room, but not next to me.
So while we might have trouble with vision and audio, we almost always have high-speed information transfer. Yes, we might confuse each other, but we're in the same place, so we can fix that.
In summary, we can create a high fidelity face-to-face environment with:
- Always-on vision via our eyes.
- Coherent audio via our ears
- The team all together in real-time.
- Sufficient bandwidth so we can collaborate.
Distributed teams need the same options.
Create More Communications for Your Team
If you want a higher frequency of communications for your distributed team, you will need:
- Sufficient hours of overlap, so you can create working agreements about when to work together and when to have cameras on.
- A text backchannel so people can discuss when they have time. This answers part of the “how long does it take to ask a question” problem.
- High-speed and dependable bandwidth so you don't have communications that drop in and out.
That's what I tried to show in the image for this post.
On the left side of the image, if:
- The team has intermittent bandwidth
- Fewer than 3 hours of overlap
Then expect insufficient team communication frequency.
However, as on the right side of the image, if:
- The team has at least four hours of overlap
- Everyone has high-speed, dependable bandwidth
- A text backchannel
Your team probably has sufficient communications.
This list is critical for satellite and cluster teams, those “hybrid” teams.
What do you think? What did I miss?