The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 4, 2006

3 Min Read

While we like to talk about the advantages of working remotely or in a distributed scenario, nothing can replace the magic that happens during the face-to-face interactions among colleagues or other collaborators. In recent discussions with collaboration industry pundits as well as professional engineers working in distributed environments, the unanimous sentiment was that projects must start with a face-to-face meeting.

Two long-time collaboration experts and founders of The Future of Work program, Jim Ware and Charlie Grantham, were kind enough to talk with me about the value of face-to-face meetings in conjunction with distributed teams. Below are excerpts of my interview with Jim and Charlie.

Deb: When people don't know each other are placed on a team, how do you get them to work together?

Jim: The manager needs to begin the process with a face-to-face interaction. I know people don’t like to hear that because it means that a lot of people will have to get on airplanes and go to one place at the same time. But, it’s our experience and what we know from our research, that if you don’t start that team interaction off with intense face-to-face interaction, you’re going to have a lot of problems later on down the line in terms of communication, misunderstanding of goals and handoffs.

The second point to that is that folks are well-advised in that face-to-face interaction to go through some sort of process where they can begin to appreciate the relative approaches to everyone on the team. There are several ways to do that -- Meyers-Briggs, Strengthfinders, etc., but some process to get an idea of who Sally or Joe really is before they get out there and try to deal with things over the Internet or telephone.

Charlie: There are a couple of key points in a project team when meeting face-to-face is important. It’s not just for getting to know Joe and Sally, it’s also for the depth of conversation and the breadth of meaning. The kickoff is certainly one of those points.

There’s also a key design point later on in a project where it might be worth bringing the team back together. Recognize the need that people have to socialize. When you’re having group conference calls, a team leader should be willing to spend a few minutes up front, say checking in with people, asking "what’s happening in your life?" It’s not really task-oriented relative to what you’re trying to accomplish, but it connects us with each other, gives each other a sense of context. The evidence we have is that colocated teams (people all on the same team on the same campus) meet face-to-face just slightly more often than teams that are spread all over the world. It’s surprising.

Jim: One of our advisors is a professor at Santa Clara University named Terri Griffith, and she’s done quite a bit of research on what she calls the value of presence (of being in the same room together). Her research suggests that colocated teams meet as a full team, face-to-face, something like 17-20% of the time -- whereas distributed teams meet face-to-face over an extended period of time an average of about 12% of the time. It’s a bit of a myth that people who are colocated meet as a team significantly more often.

I will be sharing more from my conversation with Jim and Charlie in upcoming blog entries.

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