Colocated Teams: 7 Problems With Face-to-Face Communication

XP emphasizes radically collocated teams sitting together in a shared workspace. Some of the XP thought leaders claim that anything less than that will cause significant reductions in productivity. In some situations that may be true but it hasn’t always been my experience when I’ve worked on distributed teams.

The productivity claim seems to be based on several issues: the speed of communication, the effectiveness of communication, and team bonding. The counterpoints for these issues are that physical distance doesn’t necessarily slow down communication or make it significantly less likely to happen when people want it to happen (see the speed and quantity of communication through instant messaging and various online forums, for example). I agree that team bonding can be an issue but I haven’t seen it be a big problem if the team has already bonded prior to being distributed. The communication effectiveness issue is the topic I’ll expand upon. Again, some XP thought leaders claim that face-to-face communication is always preferable to other forms of communication. Of course, a "truth" is seldom always true. As a thought experiment, let’s look at some of the potential problems with face-to-face communication.

  1. Misinterpreted body language. Some people compare face-to-face communication to a broadband network connection while other forms of communication are something like 300 baud (extremely slow) phone modem. The idea is that you receive more information per unit time when communicating face-to-face. That’s true. The question is whether than information is helping the effectiveness of the communication or not. The scowl on the other persons face might be because of something he had at lunch. You may not realize that her shoes remind you of your first grade teacher who ridiculed you in front of class. You have all this extra "bandwidth", but how much of it is noise that hurts effective communication rather than helps it?
  2. Less time to think about the message. Face-to-face communication also means real time communication. The human brain is particularly fast about processing and generating language. Some people are relatively good at it and some aren’t. Face-to-face communicate will give an unfair advantage to the person who is fast. The slower person may be forced to say things they don’t really mean or haven’t considered deeply just to stay in the conversation. With other forms of communication, like email for example, you can spend more time to think carefully about what you want to say and how to say it. I’m not saying people always use that time, but it’s there if you need it.
  3. Less formal communication. I recently moved to a different country where I don’t speak the language. Fortunately, the people at work can speak my language so it works out well. However, being here I notice that I use many very informal ways of communicating that can easily be misinterpreted (idioms, slang, and so on). When I think about it, this is common in most spoken communication. There is nothing about forms of communication like email that make it more formal, but it easier to be precise than when speaking face-to-face in real time.
  4. Interruptions. Between mobile phones and the emergency-of-the-hour there’s often something that will interrupt the face-to-face conversation before we complete. Even if we resume later, chances are we will not fully remember what we discussed because we are …​ less likely to have a record of the conversation.
  5. Less likely to have a record of the discussion. Most people don’t record or transcribe their spoken communication. That’s fine, because most of that conversation is not effectively communicating information because of the reasons listed in this article. With most forms of electronic communication, there is automatically a tangible record of the discussion.
  6. Synchronous. To have a face-to-face conversation we must both be there. I know, it’s obvious. But, think about it. If we try to find a time when we are both available isn’t it possible that it will delay the communication unnecessarily? With asynchronous communication I can send my message now and you can read it whenever you have time. It’s very possible that you will have time available sooner than we can both be physically available to have the synchronous face-to-face communication. Worse yet, the communication may never happen if one person isn’t available immediately and the other isn’t persistent about finding a common time and place for a face-to-face discussion.
  7. Expensive. By expense, I don’t necessarily mean money. Physically moving people so they can have face-to-face discussions can be extremely difficult and expensive, if not practically impossible. Imagine what it would cost and how much effort it would require to physically collocate the 7000+ members of the XP forum at Yahoo so they could communication "more effectively" face-to-face. Even if it were possible, I’m skeptical that the communication would be more generally effective.

I like face-to-face conversation and I’m a strong believer in radically collocated teams. However, I also recognize there are tradeoffs and sometimes distributed teams augmented with other forms of communication can be productive and cost effective.

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