Mike English and I do a great deal of work for the SME Toolkit, a project that provides resources for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) in developing countries. It’s sponsored by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group.
The team we work with, however, is distributed across the country — Mike and I are here in Michigan, some team members reside in Chicago, and others in San Francisco. Moreover, team members often travel around the world for training sessions or consultation.
We must communicate often (usually daily) to carry out our various jobs and tasks. This presents a unique challenge because of the distributed nature of the team. We communicate as you might suspect: mostly via e-mail and instant messenger, plus several phone calls a week and using other web software that targets distributed teams. But all of these communication media, have a large drawback — they are incredibly impersonal.
The Drawbacks of Non-Personal Communication
E-mail, instant messenger, and other text-based communication remove much of what makes communication between humans… human. They obliterate body language and tone, both which are key components of the normal communication/feedback mechanism. Phone communication can be somewhat better (at least there is a chance to express tone of voice), but it still leaves body language absent.
While these forms of communication are undoubtebly essential, they are certainly not how humans naturally interact, and this tends to be rather problematic.
After starting work on the SME Toolkit project, it took over a year before I actually met any of the team members in person. It took another six months before I finally met the rest of the team in person, an incredibly long time to work with people without actually meeting them (in the traditional sense). Mike has only recently had the chance to meet the entire team, nearly nine months after starting on the project. This is not the norm for projects at Atomic Object; we generally meet in person with customers and clients quite frequently.
Being restricted to impersonal communication media tends to depersonalize the human that we are interacting with. After a year of talking with someone predominantly via e-mail and chat, it becomes disturbingly easy to forget that we actually hold much of the human experience in common with them. When the vast majority of interaction occurs via text, it sometimes feels like we are interacting with a very intelligent computer.
The Benefits of Actually Meeting
For this reason, these meetings with the team have been tremendously helpful in actually getting to know who we work with. The meetings allow us to create personal connections: shared experiences, interests, ideas, goals, etc. that continue well after everyone has gone back home. Even if brief, the meeting can spark a real human connection that e-mail and instant message exchanges only imitate very poorly. Once we meet the members of the team and create these personal connections, we can call upon the shared experiences, interests, etc. to make future communication (even if via e-mail and instant message) much more human and much more real.
Of course, one meeting does not create a permanent personal connection with every member of the team. Ideally the team gets to meet on a somewhat-regular basis to continue the process and further develop these personal connections. Team conferences need not be frequent, but should recur often enough to renew and boost the human connection that the team members share.
Just this past week, one of our SME Toolkit team members, Jack Orsulak, happened to be in the Grand Rapids area to visit friends. He made a special effort to stop by the Atomic Object office. This was a great experience: Mike and I were able to connect with Jack, show him our office, how we work, and how we stand all day (Mike and I use standing desks). We also shared our knowledge of Grand Rapids and give some suggestions for activities in the area.
It was great to have Jack visit the office. Unfortunately, logistics make it unlikely that we’ll be able to gather the whole team at Atomic. The important detail, however, is that we were able to meet with a team member in person, renewing the personal connection — which will make chatting via phone, e-mail, and instant messenger much more tangibly human and much more effective. We have, at least in part, bridged the large distribution of the team and made our next conversation with Jack less remote on a human level, even though he still may be back home three time zones away.
Have you had any similar experiences working on a highly distributed team? What other strategies do you employ to keep the personal connections and human elements in the team vibrant?