Video conferencing for effective dispersed teams

How to use communication media properly and effectively at work

Good technical support is an important success factor for geographically dispersed organizations. In addition, the individual employees and the company as a whole need to learn how to use the various communication media properly and effectively. Video conferencing and screen sharing offer capabilities far beyond what is possible with phone conferencing, particularly if they are easy to use. However, the limitations and weaknesses of these media should not be ignored.

Netcetera is a supplier of tailored software and has more than 350 employees in five locations. They collaborate across office and national boundaries in geographically mixed project teams based in Zurich, Berne, Vaduz, Skopje and Dubai. Although the various sites help the company reduce production costs and enable proximity to customers and labor markets, they pose challenges to collaboration and a common corporate culture.
For several years now, we have been using Citrix's GoToMeeting as a combined video conferencing and screen sharing tool that can be used by every employee with a minimum of effort. The applications range from simultaneous code reviews by developers in Zurich and Skopje to senior management meetings.

We presently use Scrum and other agile methods in our customer projects. In theory a Scrum team should work in the same room as much as possible tokeep communication paths short and simple, but this is only partially possible with geographically dispersed teams. Video conferencing and screen sharing can effectively mediate this difficulty, as long as these tools are easy to use and available to everybody.
For example, in the daily stand-up meetings of a Scrum project it is very important to be able to set up video conferencing and screen sharing quickly. These meetings usually do not take longer than fifteen minutes, so they should be conducted as efficiently as possible. We use the web-based Jira Agile tool from Atlassian to implement the conventional Scrum board. The team uses it to plan its next development iteration and discuss their individual progress daily. Thanks to screen sharing, every meeting participant sees the same information, regardless of whether they are located in the Zurich or Skopje office or the head office in Winterthur.

However, there are many aspects of collaboration that cannot be sent over a cable in digital form. We therefore encourage project teams to schedule a physical get-together at one of the sites as soon as possible after the project start and work together directly for a few days. That way they get to know each other with all of their senses, and mutual acceptance grows. In addition, going out for dinner as a team after work creates team spirit in a way that is not possible at a distance. Personal contact is thereby preserved as the basic condition for fast and effective cooperation.

Disciplined meeting management is essential in virtual meetings. Even small delays or impairments of the voice link irritate the meeting participants and demand extremely high concentration. Effective communication is made even more difficult if the participants are undisciplined and constantly interrupt each other. It is therefore advisable to carefully consider which

meetings should be conducted with video conferencing and which should not. For example, Scrum has retrospective meetings in which all team members review the latest iteration and are supposed to think about the aspects where the team has already reached a high level of maturity and those where there is room for improvement. Even when the participants are in the same room, speaking openly about this may require overcoming a lot of inhibitions, depending on the individual personality. The hurdle is even higher when the other team members are only visible on a monitor and the subtleties of body language and gestures are lost.

Video conferencing and web-based tools now enable us to collaborate effectively across site boundaries. However, it is still very important to meet in person from time to time in order to truly foster communication and a common culture.

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