How does the recent insurgence of distributed teams reconcile with the need to have face-to face interactions?



In software and software related industries we started the trend to distribute work and to abandon face to face, so is it that we have recognized that the experiment is less effective for hyper-performance or performance in general, and now we are trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and bring back the people together so that we can create the knowledge?


We have learned to deal with these situations. In fact distributed development and performance, or even “hyper-performance” in a distributed setting is a very interesting topic to explore.

There is no doubt that face-to-face communication with a white board is the most effective way for getting one idea from one mind to another, and knowledge work is precisely that core process of transferring ideas from one mind to another, and then to the next and so on. There are situations where co-location is simply not possible. For instance, if you go through a merger and acquisition, and your company gets larger and all of a sudden you have offices which are at a distance, well, you have to deal with distribution, simply because the world has become a larger place.

If we go back to those founding patterns of Unity of Purpose and Community of Trust, then the point is not so much that of being concerned about being physically present at arm’s length distance, but rather to have presence in terms of engagement and attitude. You can certainly have teams that are co-olocated but are completely demotivated. If you are competing with a distributed team which is highly motivated and truly engaged in what they are doing, then they will obviously be better off than the first team.

When there is an option you should strive for the more direct forms of communicating and interacting; but that does not mean that you cannot be hyper-performing in a setting where you are distributed.

A recent development that clearly goes in this direction is the advent of so called mobprogramming where co-location is literally taken to the extreme: the whole team not only sits literally in the same room, but they all think, elaborate, communicate and interact on the same problem, in front of one shared computer screen, at the same time. The whole idea is that of having the whole team thinking at once and together, to create the dynamics of what we can call the ecology of ideas, where the more ideas can be explored during any unit of time, the more likely it is to really find the innovative, break-through idea.

Another important consequence of these direct, face-to-face interactions, where people actually work together on solving the same, shared problem, is that it produces wonders in nurturing the Community of Trust pattern. One of the best way to develop trust is to work together, ideally “against” some “common enemy.” It is in the shared “battles” that trust emerges.

So, to conclude, if you have an option, favor face-to-face settings rather than distributed ones. And if you want to try something daring that could make a huge difference in terms of performance, try even something as extreme as mobprogramming (or any other such “mobbing” approach if you are more generically into knowledge work, rather than software development).

Transcribed and adapted from the SPaMCast #258 podcast.