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InfoQ Homepage News Eric J. McNulty : Your People’s Brains Need Face Time

Eric J. McNulty : Your People’s Brains Need Face Time

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In a recent Strategy and Business article, leadership author Eric J. McNulty wrote about why distributed teams need face-to-face time in order to be most effective..  He was looking at how teams sttudying at Harvard Business School are more effective and produce better results when they meet in person during a six-month remote project, despite being dispersed around the globe.  He says:

Now, more and more teams opt for a mid-project, in-person meeting — a day or two of their own time at their own expense. Those projects continue to be among the best.

He goes on to cite research by Valérie Berset-Price which relates the need for face-to-face interaction with the wiring of the human brain.  She found that:

The brain is always scanning for risk, according to Berset-Price, and among the things it uses to determine if someone is friend or foe are non-verbal cues. Those are absent in teleconferences and flattened in all but the best video conference systems.

She also noted that language, even a common one, can be a barrier to teams functioning smoothly. For example, Northern Europeans tend to be quite direct when speaking English, while Africans are more formal and indirect. Each group’s mode of speaking can irritate or even offend the other. The multiplicity of cultural and linguistic challenges are more easily navigated when people work side-by-side to solve problems as well as share a meal, learn a bit about colleagues’ backgrounds, and swap stories about kids, sports, and other non-work issues.

He explores the value of face-to-face meetings for distributed and dispersed teams and shows how to tackle the common objection around the cost of travel for distributed teams. Drawing on work by John O’Duinn, he reccomends a face-to-face meeting of about one week every three or four months for a team who are working across multiple locations. 

He says:

It’s too easy to see travel as a luxury. Human connection, however, is a necessity and work has become global. That is a tension that must be resolved if people are to work well together. Bringing teams together enables them to establish and nurture culture. 

On a similar topic, SolutionsIQ have a white paper which identifies Successful Distributed Team Working Patterns in which they tackle a number of myths around distributed agile teams and suggest some ways to help them be more effective.  One of the patterns is Boot Camp:

Boot camp brings all remote team members together – it can be a kick-off for a colocated project or the occasion to mark key milestones such as each release start. If the entire team cannot be brought together, a minimum crucial number of members from each remote location should come together and participate in the initial Sprints. Boot camp ensures that the team begins work on the project with a shared understanding of customer context, as well as common alignment to tooling, initial architecture design, definition of done, and code standards. Natural roles in this team will start to form – for example, “John is the CI expert, since he has the most knowledge around CI best practices and management.” Most importantly, the values from the different remote team members are shared and this helps to begin building trust among them.

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