Running a distributed team? Use Skype.

I work on a lot of distributed teams and we use or have used almost everything: Webex (solid but expensive), Adobe Connect (erratic but powerful), Gatherpace (ugly but very cross-platform and very inexpensive), Yugma (I like the team and really tried multiple times but it just never worked properly and the installers always drove me crazy),  Skype (proprietary and isolated but excellent for group chat or voice and one on one video), Tokbox (n-way video conferencing on demand up to six people for free with quick ad-hoc setup), (for audio conferencing), GoogleTalk (quick and dirty IM for Google apps users), Meebo (web-based multi-IM network client that lets you log into all your IM networks at once including Facebook).

There are more but those have been the ones I have spent the most time immersed in this last couple of years. I have worked quite intensely in teams that have used all three of these modes:

  • Phone (audio)
  • Google Talk (live chat) and Phone (audio)
  • Skype (live and persistent chat and audio and video)

The experiences are all very different and it has become more pronounced for me lately. I wonder if anybody has had similar experiences. First, it helps to set some context. Every tool addresses a slightly different X/Y where X is persistence and Y is dynamism.  Bob Serr has a slightly fuzzy but interesting graphic of this on his site that I’ll link here:

Picture 72

Phone and video and IM are highly transient and very dynamic in nature. Intranets (particularly old-school ones!) were very persistent and static. That’s changing with products like Google Sites, Microsoft Sharepoint, ThoughtFarmer and MindTouch. Documents are moving up the dynamic scale too as they move out of Microsoft Office and into Google and Zoho Docs where they can be more dynamically updated. But you’ll find something called “Persistent chat” up in the corner and it’s something that has been around in many applications for years but it’s not something that people think much about.

My point is this: your collaboration platform dictates your collaboration space – how much area you cover in this graph. More is better.

My experience in working with Group 1 (phone people) is that it’s okay but human English language is not that great at describing things so I often have to share documents or my screen out so that the people on the other end of the call can really understand clearly what I’m discussing. It’s okay but it’s very limited and I often try to move these people towards more collaborative tools.

My experience in working with teams that are using AIM, Gtalk,  or MSN (does anybody use MSN any more?) is that we can have great one-to-one communication (open channel, ping person, chat, optionally move to phone, close conversation, close channel). Moving from that to group chat is simple enough (add a person to the chat) but isn’t frequently done because group chat was only added recently, so users are not accustomed to it. Most of the GTalk users don’t know that there IS a group chat or that you can do audio and video because those features have been slowly rolled into the product but since it was always used as a one to one chat channel, it’s kind of hard to envision as anything but. It’s a chat tool trying to move upstream to become an audio/video tool and it’s not getting there very quickly from a user adoption perspective.

My experience working with teams living in Skype is materially and significantly different. It’s like going from 1940 dial phones to 2020 Star trek video phones. You might think of it as “the way to make free international phone calls” but it really is much, much more. Firstly, the whole company can have an open “watercooler” channel for trash-talking and cross-company live chatter. It’s like the kitchen of the virtual office. It’s always there and you can wander in anytime to see who’s around or even what was said hours ago. That is the power of persistent chat. Second, you can instantly set up and tear down group chat rooms, sort of like pulling four people away from their desks and ducking into a meeting room at a real office. Third, if there’s a reason to do so, you can just hit CALL and all of the attendees are now on speakerphone. Ta-da – instant voice conference without having everybody dial into a freeconference on-demand line. Fourth, you can leave those rooms open sort of like project “war rooms” so that people can have discussion in there about the project and it doesn’t have to pollute other group chats. This is really just another persistent chat, but this time narrowed to a subset of people in just this one project. The great thing about persistent chat rooms is that if you’re logged off when people are chatting, the next time you log in, all of the missed conversation will be replayed for you. This is powerful stuff. Sixth, because video is built in and works very well, people tend to set up their laptops (or purchase new ones) with cameras and actually USE them. In a prior company, we bought all employees new MacBook Pros so that everybody had instantaneous access to skype audio and video without saying “oh hang on a sec – I have to find my camera and headset and plug it in.” Heck, even the new base 13″ MacBooks have them for $1000 each! Seventh, Skype now offers one-way screen sharing which means one less application to fiddle with if you just want to jump on a screen to demo something. It actually works pretty well. That to me is a bonus because there are definitely better screen-sharing applications out there.

Running distributed project teams is hard but it’s becoming the norm. Buying centralized real estate doesn’t make sense for a whole team anymore, not when you’re hiring people all over the globe in order to get the best people for the job. My recommendation is this: if you’re running a distributed project team, figure out how to ensure that they all have machines with built-in mics and cameras and use Skype. Set up a company wide room and a room for every project team. Teach your team how to quickly assemble ad-hoc team rooms and how to make team audio calls. It will give your team a sense of connectedness and the ability to assemble ad-hoc teams that is really really hard to achieve using anything else out there at the moment.  It’s hard to run a distributed team at the best of times. the more barriers you can remove (time-wise, setup-wise, technology-wise, excuse-wise), the better the communication, and the better the business can run.

Please add your thoughts to the comments below. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences here.