Dave, the tech lead, was trying to use an agile approach with his team. Four of the people worked together in a team room in Waltham, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb.

Two people worked from their homes in New Hampshire, and one person, the product owner, worked from her home in Indiana. 

Their agile approach wasn’t working that well. They spent longer than they expected on each story. They “stepped on each other” when checking in code and tests. They misunderstood the intent of the stories. Their agile approach made each person slightly crazed, instead of easing their work. 

Dave asked the team to set aside a couple of hours on Wednesday afternoon to do a deep dive on their problems. He facilitated a retrospective with substantial problem-solving time. 

The team realized they had trouble in their definition of their workspace. Some people thought the workspace was the physical office in the Boston suburbs. Some people thought the workspace was their home office. And, the team had not decided—as a team—how to manage their differences. 

They had these problems:

  • 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”. (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.

This article will discuss the issues of sufficient hours of overlap in each person’s workday. Look for future articles about the other problems with Dave’s distributed team workspaces.

Teams Need Sufficient Hours of Overlap

You might think of tools first for team workspaces. However, team members can’t truly share the workspace if they don’t have sufficient overlap in time to share the space.  Sharing the space implies that the team has created working agreements so they can communicate about the work. Sharing the space also means the team collaborates on the code, test, architecture, UI design using the various team tools.  

No matter what technologies your team uses, there will be times where they will coordinate or collaborate on some piece of work.  That coordination or collaboration may include changes to part of the code, access to a particular service, or pairing or mobbing on a particular solution. 

That means that the team members need time to work together on the work. If they have sufficient hours of overlap, they can.

Collocated teams often agree to core hours—hours that the entire team agrees they will be in the office, available for collaborative work. Not everyone works the same hours. Even collocated team members might need or want variations in their days. However, for those core hours, the team can work together.

It’s the same for a distributed or dispersed team. The team members don’t need a full eight hours of overlap. However, they need enough overlap that they can collaborate where they need to collaborate.

Visualize the Team’s Hours of Overlap

Dave’s team was “close” in terms of timezones—everyone nominally worked in Eastern time, regardless of whether it was Daylight Saving or Standard Time. However, each person’s day was a little different. 

Everyone started and finished their workday at different times. Here’s what it looked like when the team first started to chart their hours of overlap:

Dave: 8am-6pm with a significant lunch so he could run or workout. 

Fred: 9am-5:30 pm with a short lunch.

Sandra: 10am-6pm with lunch at her desk.

Trudy: 9:30am-5:30pm with a shortish lunch.

Sam (in New Hampshire): 7am-5pm with a significant lunch.

Mindy (in New Hampshire): 9am-6pm with a reasonable lunch.

Polly (the PO in Indianapolis): 9am-5:30 pm with a shortish lunch.

From the outside, it looks as if people have significant hours of overlap. However, Polly used the middle part of her day for phone calls with the salespeople and customers. Dave used part of his afternoon working with pre-sales support and phone-screening candidates.

Here’s a chart of each person’s availability by hour:

The yellow highlights show pulls on Dave’s and Polly’s time—time they were not available for the team.

Each of the other people had other pulls on their time, too. They didn’t have a lot of collaboration time as a _team_.  Notice that the _team_ only had three hours of availability in a given workday.

Consider Changes for Collaboration

Once the team could see their potential hours of overlap, they decided to attack the problem of finding more hours of overlap to collaborate.

Dave and Polly looked at their schedules: could they shift their not-available times to earlier or later in the day?

Dave decided to try an experiment for a week. He would move the pre-sales work and the candidate phone screen work to later in the day. In addition, he asked Fred and Sandra to collaborate on the phone screens. He took one of those hours to explain his phone screen approach. Fred and Sandra shared his phone screen responsibilities. 

They met for a few minutes each day after they completed their phone screens to reconnect and decide on next steps.

Polly wasn’t sure how to change her salespeople and customer phone calls. She looked at her data for a week: how much time did she need for European calls and how much for west coast calls? 

She’d been accustomed to chunking all the calls in the middle of her day. She decided to shift some of the calls to her early morning, some for her lunch, and some for later in the day. She wasn’t sure how splitting her call time would work, but freeing her middle-of-the-day would benefit the team.

The team now had this hours-of-overlap chart:

The team now has four hours of overlap during the day when they can collaborate. And, because the chunks are two hours long, with one in the morning and afternoon, the team has more possibilities for swarming, mobbing, and pairing. 

Hours of Overlap Matter More than Timezones

Everyone in this team was in the same timezone. However, they had trouble working as a team because various people were pulled in different directions. The team needed hours of overlap, not just being in the same timezone to collaborate.

The first step to building a teams’ workspace is by finding common hours of overlap.

NOTE: You can access a Google Sheets version of the spreadsheet show in this article by clicking on this link. Be sure to click “File > Make a copy” in menus to create your own version to edit.

Previously published in PragPub #118, April 2019 by Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman.