The Emotive Element of Distributed Teams

Will Bullock, of SLANT in Charleston, asked the following:

Hi Brian – we have been doing quite a bit of virtual collaboration ourselves lately (international client, west coast dev team). Certainly technology makes this much easier, but one thing I feel is often missing from the emails, wiki posts, and even conference calls is that emotive element: reading the client’s face, even through an iChat camera, is a poor substitute for true face time. I feel like this disconnect sometimes leads to misinformation.

Have you experienced this, and if so what do you/your distributed teams do to overcome it?

This was asked in reference to the talk Jack Harvey of litl.com and I are doing on Friday at the Charleston Digital Corridor about Distributed Teams and the Modern Company. I asked Will if I could post his question and my response, and he kindly agreed. Minor edits were made to fit this post’s context.

Great question, and a great point to raise during the talk so that others know you’re facing this issue.

I’ve written about this a bit on my blog:

Tips for Effective Meetings | Productivity501

But I’m still not sure I have the right answer.

Yes – I have experienced it, often with very negative results. The inability to use vocal and physical cues in the conversation makes it far less “rich” than if you were in proximity. Where a simple eyebrow raise, or a smile, or a lean forward in the seat can make all the difference in conveying thought and emotion, it is *totally* lost in the distributed situation.

I’ve been in a few situations where persuasive arguing was impacted quite a bit, where heated discussions probably ended prematurely or at least unresolved (emotionally) and where it was simply just hard to communicate. All are situations that could still be present when the team is together, but when apart – very hard to deal with.

Dealing with it, at least in my experience with my coworkers, takes real, foundational understanding that:

  • the remote resources (in either direction – at “home” or “away”) are equal team members.
  • everyone needs to work to ensure that the communication is clear (especially on the side where more of the team sits – they don’t get a pass because they’re “all in the office”).
  • there needs to be a *much* higher degree of preparedness all around – send out drawings before meeting, emails detailing positions being taken, etc. It is very easy to lose that data in a distributed meeting than in a local meeting because of the probability of communication issues.
  • you need to have some strong connection to your team members to make the relationship work.

I’m going to be talking about the last item on Friday as it relates to trust. For a preview:

More on Trust

I’ve found that having some connection stronger than simply coworker or entity/contractor/remote or similar results in a *much* better result.

A common case for a distributed team is that much of the team only knows each other via email, IM and phone calls. While this works, it isn’t optimal. The team needs to gel together (as any other team does) for success. The *only* way to accomplish that is by establishing trust between the members. Where can that come from?

  • prior relationships with each other
  • interconnected, shared relationships (mutual former coworkers, friends, etc.)
  • reputation
  • prior successes with each other

Trust, of course, is best built by forging good relationships between the members of the team, and often the only good way to do that (and maybe the most economical in the long term) is to put them together. While it might be expensive initially to hold an on-site meeting, the ability to grow trust and relationships within the team in a short amount of time is simply so strong. Even sending a group to a conference together builds the connections they would otherwise be missing. Speaking from experience, the times when my company has held on-site meetings, in conjunction with some team-building activities and great meals together, we’ve made huge strides in establishing trust that envelopes our distributed project teams.

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