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 work day (calendar space for collaboration).

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” (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? In the image, “Team Communication Possibilities,” we show the various possibilities.
Image copyright Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby

Define Rich and Natural Terms

Notice that we called the various communications “rich and natural.” To understand the capabilities we need, we might need to understand 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 overloading 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, they 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 also 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.

So the best combination of tools also allows you to pair or mob on the work so that the work can be completed quickly.

A previous version was published in PragPub magazine #119, May 2019 by Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman.