Monday, 11 January 2010

Still snowed in

I managed to get out of Little Hampden today, thanks to a neighbour’s 4x4. This was rather fun: because there was a blockage on the lane, Geoff decided to go through the field – known locally as the L1.

With many people not able to get to work, I thought it a good time to share some of my experiences with remote working. I have run geographically-dispersed teams where face-to-face meetings were infrequent. Body language plays a large part of communications – whether social or professional. Figures vary but estimates range from 60% to 97% of information is transferred by non-verbal means. You don’t have to be an expert to detect peoples’ feelings and moods from the way in which they react physically. Most remote immediate communications – even today – rely on sound only – so potentially large amounts are missing from the interaction. One of the teams I was involved with used to have regular conference calls. In order to be as productive as possible, we worked hard at developing a range of techniques to make the most of this mode of meeting. The first was to get to know and understand each other as well as possible when we did meet – I tried suggested to my manager that all the team’s face-to-face time should be spent socialising so that we would know everyone’s foibles. She wouldn’t accept this but nevertheless we spent as much time together as possible. We also agreed to be very open with each other when in these calls – if we were uneasy about something we’d own up – rather than just sitting awkwardly. We’d also go round the room (so to speak) at each decision point to confirm that everyone was really OK about it.

We also used messenger and telephone calls whenever we wanted to discuss or query something. We were always chatting – productively, of course, and this helped the team building and group operations. I developed the term ‘Next desk thinking’ for this way of operating: had we been working in the same location, we’d have leaned over and asked a question or commented on something. We tried to operate in the same way even though we were thousands of miles apart – and the technology supported this. As well as speaking informally, we respected times when people wanted to concentrate on some activity – just like we’d have spotted had we actually been in the next desk – but we disciplined ourselves to reject a request – and to accept such a rejection without ill feeling.

Communication is much better now with video calls which we can do from our own PCs – although I think multi-site video calls are not easy to find. I remember on another project introducing video rather than audio-only conference calls with remarkable effect: remote team members suddenly felt much more involved in – and committed to – the discussion. We’ve successfully used this technique recently to interview a candidate who was across the Atlantic. I don’t think we get the full body language yet but we’re getting there.

However, none of this is a substitute for an intensive working meeting in the pub!

No comments: