The sixth principle of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation“. We have all experienced situations in which our not seeing the person we were speaking with resulted in a misinterpretation of what was being said. When teams are composed of dispersed members who don’t have the benefit of seeing one another face-to-face it takes longer for them to trust one another. It also can increase the volume of documentation required to create shared understanding.
It should be fairly simple for teams working for a single company on small, low complexity projects to be co-located, but as project complexity, scale or the number of distinct delivery partners grows, multiple constraints including the availability of skilled contributors, financial restrictions or real estate limitations might prevent team members from working in close proximity.
It is always a good idea for leaders to organize early and regular face-to-face opportunities to build trust within the distributed teams they are supporting.
But is that enough?
Augmented or virtual reality technologies have still not evolved to a point where we can accurately simulate being co-located, but using dedicated video conferencing facilities or even the webcams on our laptops can boost communication effectiveness.
Such tools can provide us with benefits such as:
- Determining how engaged individuals are in the discussion. This can be especially helpful in ceremonies such as daily standups where it might be tempting for someone to tune out after they have shared their information. With everyone observing what each other is doing, the social pressure of not wanting to be singled out for multitasking might be enough to keep people’s focus on what is being said.
- When supporting a small distributed team, a facilitator might forget to call on silent team members. Seeing their faces makes it easier for the facilitator to draw them into the conversation, especially if the facilitator is picking up on a facial cue that a team member is concerned about the topic but seems to be unwilling to voice their concerns.
- Enabling richer participation in voting, brainstorming, team building or creative activities. For example, if a decision needs to be made, a leader can ask for a show of hands, and determine how eager individual team members appear to be based on how quickly they raised their hands.
- Helping team members to better support one another. It is very challenging to determine how someone feels if they are just communicating with us via e-mail, instant message or phone call. Visual cues can help you see that they are having a bad day.
Albert Mehrabian’s 7%, 38% and 55% rule about the relative impact which verbal, tone and body language cues have on how much we like someone is frequently misstated as representing the impact of all communications. But we should never forget that old saying: “Out of sight, out of mind”.