Colocation is often considered an enabler if not a critical success factor for successful project delivery.
While this makes sense for small teams, as we take on larger scale products and projects, it is not always practical to have everyone in the same room. Communication channels increase non-linearly as the size of a team grows and at some point it will be impossible from either a real estate or an effectiveness perspective.
As the size of an initiative grows, breaking down scope along component or feature lines can enable the distribution of contained work to smaller teams whose members might be collocated with a reduced need for constant communication. Having such teams distributed geographically should not be an issue so long as there is still the opportunity to conduct ceremonies such as a Scrum of Scrums to manage interdependencies, maintain alignment in release cadence and to raise shared impediments to the right level of resolution.
With such a distributed approach it is often tempting to use a purely virtual work model, especially on large initiatives where there could be a heavy cost to bringing everyone together once in a while. While this makes short term economic sense, Simon Sinek’s warning from Leaders Eat Last should not be ignored: “The more abstract people become, the more capable we are of doing them harm.”
Sinek references Milgram’s experiments in the early 1960’s where test subjects were given the opportunity to do harm to someone else. While only 30% of these volunteers were capable of proceeding substantially through the experiment when they had to witness the (simulated) pain they caused, 65% were capable of doing so when they never saw who they were hurting.
Our very current problem of cyberbullying is another shining example of this. While we are still biologically social animals, the anonymity and separation created by the Internet and social media platforms reduces personal impacts of inflicting pain.
Trust is also hard to cultivate when we haven’t met those we are working with. While we hope that our co-workers will treat us as they would like to be treated, it is hard to feel psychologically safe with them if they are just an e-mail address or instant messaging avatar to us. As Sinek puts it “Trust is like lubrication. It reduces friction and creates conditions much more conducive to performance.”
We may have differences of opinion at work, but if we have met and had the occasion to socialize outside of the office, it is much easier to see and treat one another as human beings.
Economize as necessary, but don’t eliminate opportunities for teams to meet in person.