Living in Australia and working with team members based in the US and India, discovering ways of being more effective in my job, has become a bit of a hobby. However my situation is not unique. Knowledge workers are increasingly required to work in a distributed manner – in some cases this is working specific weekdays from home, in other cases it involves close interaction with team members spread across continents. Please note this is a rapidly changing area, even in the time between writing this article and its appearance on B&A many things have changed.
Outsourcing (mainly to India and China) and reductions in travel spending due to the recession has lead to more and more distributed teaming. Add to this the reduction in cost and increased availability of broadband, working from home, or moving to Hawaii is increasingly an option both requested by employees and agreed to by employers (in my case Surfers Paradise).
Once remotely located a designers ability to interact with other team members and effect change are funneled through the telecommunication mediums that the team uses to communicate. This article lists the available mediums and analyzes their respective strengths and weaknesses and provides suggestions for their effective use.
Real Time Voice
We have three main types of telephone service: landline telephone service, mobile, and VOIP. Working out which to use, when is not as straight forward as you would think.
A landline telephone in concert with a conference calling system forms the backbone of a distributed workers ability to communicate with team members in real time.
While many thought the introduction of mobile and VOIP would reduce the importance of landlines, in many ways the opposite has been true. Mobile disappoints as a medium for clear communication, and wide adoption of asymmetric broadband systems has in many cases hamstringed VOIP to be as a complete replacement for landlines.
A mobile phone connection has less audio fidelity than a landline, and it has a habit of dropping out or breaking up at the most inopportune moments. In one case in India, mobile providers limit conversations to 60 minutes – requiring tedious re-login to calls that spill over the hour. Added to this, the temptation for calls to be taken in inappropriate places – bars, restaurants, the shopping mall etc. – is too much to resist.
VOIP services on the other hand are a mixed bag. Sometimes the audio fidelity can be of almost CD quality. On the other hand intermittent breaking up of the audio stream and the occasional dropped line can make them more unreliable even than mobile connections.
In my experience, current standard residential DSL and Cable IP services (at least in Australia) do not provide enough upstream bandwidth to allow both a VOIP and web conference sessions to run concurrently without some congestion issues. Of course if you are on the receiving end of a presentation it is not so much of an issue. However when you are the presenter (when it is critical that you communicate clearly), the bandwidth associated with your presentation and your voice stream invariably results in your voice breaking up giving others on the call a bad experience.
Conference Calling Tips
- Make it a rule not to use your mobile for conference calls unless it is unavoidable, and then make sure you pick an appropriate place to take the call. Defer your turn to present – if at all possible – to when you are close to a landline.
- Stay off your VOIP line when your presenting unless you have wide (1 megabit or greater) upstream bandwidth
- Before the call – be sure to provide a agenda for all conference calls
- Web conferencing – if a web conference is going to be part of the call include the connection details along with the agenda
- After the call – be sure to send out minutes by email to provide a written reference of call results.
- It makes sense to invite all call attendees to a group chat session. This can add significant value to the conference call by:
- providing transparency as to who is currently on the call
- cueing upcoming presenters
- managing questions
The value of offline text communication is unquestioned. To date this type of communication has occurred primarily using email services, but a relatively new kind of service called “groups” is becoming more popular among distributed teams – for good reason.
- Ubiquitous – everybody has and knows how to use it
- Mature – email clients both desktop and web based are feature rich
- Overuse – important messages get lost amongst the less important
- Spam – filtering sometimes removes important messages
- Attached Files – not a good storage solution and file sizes are limited
- Address book – requires send to, cc and bcc to be managed manually
- Membership – access to content and automated notifications is limited to group members
- Suite of service scoped by project– depending on the provider a group offers an array of useful services:
- threaded messaging, polling, calendar, file archive and link manager
- One place to go – by centralizing all offline communications a single repository is now available for members to access all recorded data associated with a project
- Updates – Users can decide what areas of the group they wish to receive notification of updates on and how they are delivered (each update, once a day, once a week etc.)
- Relatively unknown – groups of all the mediums discussed in this paper have the smallest user base
- Member management overhead – this is not required if email is used as the primary offline communication tool
- Usage enforcement overhead- for a group to be effective its usage needs to be enforced
Email while a very useful tool for general communication, is increasingly less effective for teams working closely. Important messages are being overlooked in increasingly large inbox or in some cases removed by aggressive filtering.
Groups can add value to project teams by centralizing all offline communications and automating the notification of updates. Well known implementations include: Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Basecamp, and Microsoft SharePoint. It must be said that while groups are great for distributed teams they are only effective if strictly enforced as the primary offline communication medium. In situations where members are mixing communications up between email and the project group their value is significantly reduced.
Offline Text Tips
- Assign a group master at the beginning of each project who’s tasks will be to:
- create and name the group
- create and manage team member enrollments
- create and manage file archive and link folder structures
- enforce group usage
- moderate message threads
- Use standard email subject schema (Project Name : Message Context : Action Description). This allows your team members to more efficiently pick which of your communications they should read.
- Write conclusions and actions at the top of the message. Don’t bury important content deep inside or at the end of a long message.
- Keep the airways clear. Email chains on frivolous topics clog inboxes – do not contribute to them if you can resist it.
Real Time Text
Real time text — or chat —is becoming more recognized as a useful business tool. However with the good comes the bad.
- Less intrusive – more immediate than sending email but less intrusive than a telephone call. Chat is an excellent way to informally communicate with an individual team member.
- Ubiquitous – almost everybody is familiar with one or more of the popular chat clients
- Team status – if everybody in the team is on the same chat client it can provide a single place to view the “online” status of your team
- Distracting – overuse by individuals can detract from work focus
- Service dependence – while consolidation is occurring, there are still a number of firewalled chat services.
When not over used chat represents an excellent medium to promote informal communication between team members. Chat has been described as the virtual equivalent of the water cooler conversation. This kind of communication can promote innovation as well as go a long way to improve bonds between distributed team members.
Real Time Text Tips
- Stay logged in – make it a point to log into to your chat client when working
- Status indicator – always keep your status indicator current, giving your team immediate transparency to your current accessibility
- Manage your contacts – be sure to create logical folder groupings for all of your chat contacts. This will give context when contacts you don’t often converse with reach out to you.
- Don’t use file transfer – stay away from chat based file transfers they are slow and unreliable. Use the project group or email instead.
Web conferencing, has gone from a nice to have, to a must have for many organizations. In fact in the case of usability research it is the now the norm for user testing of product prototypes. It is not long ago when web conferences were special events organized for clients. Nowadays most calls that involve design issues have a web conferencing session. This is true even with only two parties on the call.
- Visual stimulus – when integrated with a conference call, a web conference can show presentations, mockups, and other documents.
- Other services – Commonly bundled services include: polling, white board, agenda, meeting minutes, chat, and meeting audio/screen recording.
- Single sign-on – as is often the case separate authentication is required to enter the web conferencing system. Very few systems integrate phone, web and group functionality, current systems often require users to login multiple times.
- Browser dependencies – many web conferencing systems require specific platforms and browsers
- Bandwidth intensive – presentations rich in graphic/photographic material can over tax bandwidth resources causing audio and visual lag between presenter and viewers.
- No standard interface – it seems every web conferencing system takes a unique approach to its user interface, making it difficult for users to transition between different systems
- Screen size dependencies – some systems do not cater well to different screen resolutions between conference presenter and viewers.
- Expensive – web conferencing systems are expensive to subscribe to, buy, and maintain for individuals.
- However this is changing rapidly with Powerpoint to flash conversion tools and built-in screen share facilities such as those found in Skype and iChat.
Web conferencing is a major boon to distributed teams. As the market for these services matures we will see big improvements such as integrated video cam capture, audio recording, speech to text by current vendors as well as the emergence of new extensions to chat and VOIP clients which traditionally have been free.
In the past, video conferencing required expensive dedicated systems. Web based video streaming and integration with popular chat and VOIP services has started to change this. However to date the use of real time video as a business communication tool has been low.
- Visual cues – in a one to many situation a head and shoulder video stream of the presenter can provide viewers visual cues missed in conference calls
- Relationship building –in a one to one situation being able to see the person you are interacting with increases you’re ability to communicate and bond faster
- Bandwidth dependencies – video streams are bandwidth intensive
- Client dependencies – many of these services are tied to chat/VOIP providers that require specific platforms and browsers
- Small user base/Low take-up – the value add of person to person video in a design context is still tenuous. This however may change when functionality arrives to enable three or more video streams to be viewed concurrently.
- Immature culture – the fledgling nature of this type of communication means there is very little culture in acceptable behavior.
Video Conferencing Tips
- How you look influences peoples perception. As such how you light your face, what you wear, and the background behind you are all factors that should be considered when using real time video for business purposes.
Real time video brings marginal value to distributed teams. At this time it could be described as a nice to have, especially in situations where bandwidth is scarce. In the future it may become more important especially if integrated into web conferencing systems where the presenter’s video stream is included in the web conference stream.
Nice classification of communication tools and tips to use them.
I’m personally intrigued by Google Wave, it looks like a mix of traditional email (or gmail) with real time text, group sharing, media integration. It’s still in closed beta, but I’d be interested in hearing about your experience (if any) or thoughts about it.
Handy Breakdown. I am about to launch a google wave project and can’t wait to see how it turns out. For me, email has broken down with more than a few people. There are too many side conversations and real-time text solutions never involve all of the people needed. Google wave seems to solve many of the issues associated with other text solutions.
I do have a Google Wave account and a few associates who are keen users. At this point it’s not really part of my toolkit, my remoteness makes its real time nature somewhat superfluous. However it’s not hard to see the value in relation to teams that while distributed are within a couple of hours time difference. I for one would like to see these kind of activity streams starting to appear within applications and the content they generate bound to their associated objects – this is the enterprise dream 🙂
I’d have to differ on the video conference comment “Real time video brings marginal value to distributed teams.” While there are certainly technical challenges to overcome, if its doable, it makes all the difference in getting a “team” to communicate effectively.
Hi Pat. I too live in Australia and work remote (Sunshine coast) for a company in Brisbane. It’s not a huge distance, but a distance no less.
My company has a fairly small and tight team, and my role as designer within our structure doesn’t require a lot of conference type meetings – I deal and consult mainly with our head of marketing and head developers. We rely on good old email and real-time text/chat. For instant clarification on issues that are not easily recorded in copy we resort to landlines phone. For more than 2 people involved in real-time decisions we do group chats via real-time chat clients and can enable voice if need be (Specific VOIP apps and services are superfluous to us as we can use our free chat client to do achieve the same). These methods, for the specific nature of our projects and team, have been effective for over 2 years now.
I imagine where communication daily regarding decisions and providing direction to individuals and groups where instant feedback is required, Voice, Video or Web conferencing is a necessity (especially working with teams abroad).
Having looked at your write-up and some of the comments, perhaps Google Wave might be worth a look. However, with an already winning formula for our team, it may just be counter-productive if everyone involved isn’t willing to adopt it as an alternative – even though it may be more efficient. I guess the only way to find out is to give it a try.
Thanks for the post
Clare, I guess my perceptions of real time video are tied up with the limitations of my companies systems. Actually there are lots of meetings I would really like to be running Skype video with a white-board in the background to facilitate interaction design discussions, but our VPN just does not allow for it. Also with my current thinking around ego in the enterprise every opportunity to brand as an individual becomes important, making video even more attractive, this area is moving fast.
Stu, sounds like you have a pretty tight team, some of these other options might come into play when/if you scale.
great insight. especially useful for people who are really into outsourcing!
great tools for people working at distance.
I work remotely as well and face much the same problems. I do NOT think telephone conference calls by themselves, especially when discussing a layout issue, are very effective. The only exception to this is if it is a very localized problem whose solution doesn’t have a spillover effect elsewhere on the page. What I’ve found to work very well is to upload the competing ideas and (this works best with multiple monitors) markup the competing designs. This can be slow but, in my experience, it tends to be deliberate and effective.
How is the markup done? Sometimes super-low tech: a print out is marked up, scanned and emailed/uploaded. A few reiterations – it’s a little slower than face to face – but as mentioned before often times which much more thought and deliberation.
As Patrick Stapleton mentioned Skype plus a Whiteboard would be ideal – but too often other issues interfere with this, the best of all scenarios. And, as you all know Google Wave, as interesting as it was is no longer. Too bad, it seemed promising.
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