Dec 14, 2016

Collocate vs. Live-Stream: are we going back to basics?

(part I)

Author: Mihai Mlesnita

What does ideal remote collaboration look like? For me, the ideal is meetings everyone comes prepared to, that never get ‘overcrowded’ or have lots of people just drifting off into their own day-to-day tasks without really listening. We talk about what has happened, we discuss what we plan to do and what might be preventing us from doing so. In the end, everything comes together in a neat, seamless fashion – like those oddly relaxing Discovery ‘How it’s made’ documentaries where you see vehicle parts just effortlessly coming together in a perfectly coordinated symphony.

OK, great. Now what does your actual experience with remote collaboration look like? I’m not talking about one formal meeting with the client where everyone is in full business attire – I’m thinking actual work, one team of developers on one end, another on the other end, with tasks on both sides. If you’re now picturing endless calls with dozens of faceless people and vague sound echo, which feel like they’re running in circles without ever resolving anything – then we have something in common. Is Chad’s dog barking in the background again, as you try to focus on what is being said? I hate it when that happens.

In the end, when it’s time to bring our work together into a functional product or service, the ‘perfectly coordinated symphony’ turns into an infinite cycle of back-and-froths, where everyone tries to wash their hands clean of whatever’s not working properly. It’s exceeding deadlines, and worst of all, the ‘angry mob of developers’ on either team has nothing to pin the blame on.

Individually, everyone’s doing their job well. It’s overall coordination that’s bad.

So why does this happen? Why do remote meetings end-up being inefficient, a drain on everyone’s time, the everyday inescapable dread of our working life? Maybe we need to question the extent to which long-distance team communication can be efficient.

When you replace people with demo versions of themselves, which come via emails, in-built microphones and cameras live-streaming on computer screens, you have a high chance of less than ideal communication.

It’s not that there isn’t cross-globe instant-speed communication. It’s that we need higher-quality communication. The undistracted, uninterrupted, all-focus-here-and-now communication.

People are at their computers, talking to someone 12 hours of flight away, when a new email hits the Inbox. What’s to stop them from checking that new email, from becoming distracted, from misinterpreting a bit of the instructions, from forgetting to ask that one thing, from thinking they can actively listen and communicate while they perform 5 other tasks at the same time? In ‘real life’, for better or worse, everyone is forced to stay focused – if they ever want to get out of the meeting room. If we had been more engaged in the conversation, truly listening and giving it our full attention, maybe we could have offered a certain suggestion, or maybe we could have noticed some detail that would have made a difference.

Due to this noticeable decrease in communication quality, there’s now a return to colocation happening. You can outsource a project efficiently, but you can’t outsource half a project efficiently.

We’re starting to think about how to communicate better, or rather learning to reintegrate ‘traditional’ communication where it matters.

Interested in this topic and eager to know more? Stay in touch with us, because in my next article I’ll be detailing the top 5 reasons why long-distance work is so often inefficient.

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