On Co-Location, Email, and Face-to-Face Communication


I broke my own rule – I tweeted a thought as a controversial statement.


From this erupted responses from numerous people from the other point of view (mainly on the co-location piece and whether face-to-face is necessary, not so much defending email). So instead of trying to discuss this in 140 characters, here's my full train of thought on this.

The tweet was born out of two different events:

  1. A tweet by Steve Porter that "email is not a collaboration tool" (I fav'd it).
  2. My team had just worked through some design decisions in our team room, where we all sit together.

I was riding a high of team collaboration mixed with crusading angst against email when I combined all that into a single tweet.

Now let me talk through my thought process on all these.

Co-Location is Incredibly Important

When I think of the teams I've been on that have succeeded the most, they all share a common theme – they all worked in the same room or the same area (physical impediments (walls, hallways, different floors) are real barriers to teams collaborating together). Being co-located had the spin off benefit that the team felt more like a team than a group of employees assigned to the same project – there's a difference. Eating together, playing board games together, building relationships with each other – all of these happened, and ultimately benefited how we worked together because we were co-located.

There's a growing thought that employees don't need to be co-located, and in this wired & connected world it shouldn't matter where we work. I can't (and am not trying to) argue with people's personal experiences where they feel they've had success. That's basically what I'm saying in this post – when I've had the most success in projects, co-location has been a factor.

Consider Mob Programming, which is somewhat of the extreme of this position and one that I'm not 100% sold on. Mob programming "is very similar to Pair Programming, but the whole team works together on the same "problem" at the same time at the same computer." That's business owner, developers, testers…everyone, in one room, working on the same problem. Below is a video of a company that has adopted this as how they work every…single…day.

If you talked to them, I'm sure they'd rave about how awesome this has worked for them. And really, when we talk about how to best organize a team, this speaks to the real truth: the best approach as to where team members should work – remote, co-located, or on top of each other all day – is best left to the individuals that make the team to decide.

For me, I will always defer to co-locating with a team I'm a part of than being remote. For me I find communication is best done face to face, with video chatting being at the very least of that. Which brings us to…

Face to Face Is Necessary

I think we all agree email isn't a collaboration tool and on this point I will argue with anyone. So let's deal with the face-to-face portion of the tweet.

No, I'm not going to quote the whole "90% of communication is non-verbal" because that opens up a whole new can of worms about how that theory has been debunked and that you can't really set a number to something like this because of how people are different, etc. etc. But, there is a lot of research into this area that does support that non-verbal cues DO make influence how we communicate and interpret communication. If you'd like to learn more on this, there's a number of great TED talks on the subject.

I've also found that face to face communication removes any interpretation or guesswork that an individual has to do around inferring tone and emotion. Consider this.

"Hi Joe, please come by my office – I need to discuss something with you."

We've probably all gotten an email like this or similar in the past. What thoughts go through your mind when you see this? Without any context this can be read as everything from getting a promotion to getting fired.

Now imagine you're casually walking down the hallway and your boss passes by and says to you "Hi Joe. Hey, can you please come by my office later? I need to discuss something with you." Your boss is relaxed, he even smiles when he sees you. He doesn't seem agitated or concerned. Now what goes through your mind? Probably that you just need to go talk about something with the boss and the thought that you may be in trouble doesn't even cross your mind.

Seeing someone, hearing the tone in their voice, experiencing their non-verbal cues, all plays in to how we effectively communicate with others, whether we're receiving or delivering the message.

I have a love/hate with Slack. I've had a couple of teams that used it extensively, and for some reason I always seem to get with people who – like me, admittedly – love to bug and poke each other. But sometimes, without understanding the non-verbal piece of communication, those messages can be misinterpreted as being meant-spirited or even cruel. I actually took a self-imposed hiatus from Slack for a bit because it was becoming counter-productive to the blissful communication utopia the platform promises.

I mentioned how effectively communicating plays in when receiving or delivering. Face to face communication allows us to pick up cues about the receiver and what state they're in. Are they happy, sad, frustrated? Are they in a place where a comment made would hurt them? Without non-verbal cues I have no opportunity to alter my message to ensure its communicated effectively.

Where face to face or video isn't an option, voice is great as well. I'm also a proponent of using emoticons in emails to convey sentiment – its better than forcing someone to infer what your tone is.

Let's Wrap Up

Everyone is different – personalities, drivers, needs, wants, etc. Everyone communicates in their own way and has their own preferences. And no solution fits everyone. Mob Programming isn't for everyone, just like an all-remote team isn't for everyone either. For me, I will always look for co-locating with my team and doing face-to-face communication as much as possible, because that's where I've seen the  most success personally. If you're being successful in what you're doing – great, keep it up! If not, look at yourself, your team, and how you're working/communicating and see if there's an opportunity to change things.

D'Arcy Lussier

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