Working on remote, widely-distributed teams has its advantages (I can work from home in my basement, wearing whatever I feel like) but also, of course, its disadvantages. In particular, when the team is working against a hard deadline, being separated means not able to gather in front of a whiteboard, or easily meet to discuss the proximate cause of some bug.
For the latest deadline-driven push to complete the testing and bug-fixing on time to deliver to the client, with a five-person team working in timezones from Eastern Canada to Brisbane, Australia (with a couple of us on Pacific time in the middle and the project manager on Chicago time), we started a group chat using skype. Teams have done this for years, of course, using IRC, so the technique isn’t new. Skype has the nice feature that you can switch clients (in my case from PC to Mac laptop to Android phone), and the chats automatically sync so you can catch up on what happened since you last logged on (in my case also answer questions while sitting in a concert at my son’s school, or at the airport). Yes, I’ve heard the concerns about security back doors with skype but the choice of chat system isn’t mine to make.
Seven days, 2351 lines, and 29964 words later, we shipped. Coordinating the test files, regression testing, bug fixes, and documentation updates with the competing projects, late nights, and timezone issues would have been much more difficult with any other means of communication. Yes, the chat got confusing at times with various issues being discussed simultaneously amongst the three of us who were most involved, and there was a certain amount of “can you remind what that issue was about again”, but some of that was due to the late nights and deadline pressure rather than the medium of communication.
And it was fun, more fun than email messages. Chats are more immediate, less formal, we made each other laugh and wandered off topic at times, which doesn’t happen much in email in a corporate setting. It’s somehow easier to write “well done!” or “I need coffee” or “can you explain that again” in a chat than email. And in some ways it’s almost easier than being in the same room with people. With the amount of work in a short time, and late nights/long days, tempers occasionally get short and irritation rises. In a chat it’s easier to step away and not say something you’ll regret later; easier to say “I need a break, I’m going for a walk” than if you’re in the same office as someone else working on the same deadline.
Remote teams are often said to not be as productive as teams in the same office. After this experience, I think some of that lack of productivity is due to the people, and some to not figuring out how best to use tools (even simple ones like chat) that are available. Of course, everyone has to forget their ego, and be prepared to say when they don’t understand or need more details (often easier in chat than face-to-face). And be understanding when things go wrong, while still working to put them right again. A good project manager who knows when to keep out of the way and when to offer encouragement also helps, thanks AM!