I am a great advocate of communicating face-to-face with the project team, wherever possible, throughout all stages of a project. Being able to pose a casual question at the coffee machine that might never be voiced in a formal meeting can often be enlightening – whether that question comes from the project manager or one of the team. People can come up with innovative ideas when their minds are not constrained like they tend to be in a meeting with senior executives or, heaven forbid, the client.
Face-to-face communication helps to build a motivated team – the project manager understands the team members better because they are not always talking about work; the team members can raise concerns about the project informally before they become serious problems; and creatively and technically the team can learn from each other. This is why open plan offices work so well – they encourage the flow of ideas. Very often simply voicing a question to a particularly complex problem can help in finding a solution so communication, or more accurately conversations, aid productivity and problem-solving.
Of course, there are also downsides to open plan working – the very interruptions that help the productivity of one team member might conversely slow down the productivity of the individual who is interrupted, but on balance, for a project team as a whole there can never be too much free and open communication.
At critical stages of projects I have worked on in the past, staff who have had a particular need for peace and quiet have been able to work from home for the occasional day so that they can get through the critical stage without interruption. This has enabled them to be highly productive without undermining the benefits of regular communication, the exchange of ideas, questions answered and individuals learning from each other.
In a recent article “Agile Interruptions” by Mike Griffiths he mentions that his team now use instant messaging as a way of making a less intrusive interruption when they need to ask a question that he can chose to ignore until it suits a particular point in the flow of his work. This is a great use of instant messaging when you know who to direct a specific question at but often you may want to throw a question out into the room because you don’t know who will have the answer, or indeed of there is an answer. Conversations are a series of comments, ideas, questions – one comment might lead to a question or to an idea – advice you didn’t know you were seeking can pop up – conversations are dynamic in a way that instant messaging is not.
But, nevertheless, I take his point of this sometimes being useful – it’s instant so someone knows you are trying to attract their attention because of an issue or question, yet at the same time ignorable.
I also liked Mike’s mention of Cave areas as suggested in Ken Auer’s book for quiet places to work un-interrupted – perfect if there is no opportunity to work from home, perhaps because of security and data access issues on your particular project.
Of course a project team all working in the same open plan office in the same city and in the same country and communicating freely is an ideal situation that many of us have not had the luxury of. I’ve worked on many projects where certain members of the team are in different countries and different time zones – add to that the language and cultural barriers and that is a real challenge. These challenges can be overcome but not easily and necessitate the use of electronic forms of communication.
But, in general, and where possible all team members sharing an office or building should be encouraged to talk face-to-face with all its advantages of being able to pick up on body language and facial expressions. Use instant messaging only as an occasional tool at certain times in the project when you don’t wish to interrupt someone’s concentration. Email should be sent to those sitting nearby only when it is necessary to document questions or decisions or seek formal approvals. After all you wouldn’t phone a colleague sitting nearby to ask a question so why message or email them?
Providing a project team with the temporary opportunity to work from home or in a quiet office when they simply need to get on and produce work at a high rate is, perhaps, the best option to minimise interruptions that reduce productivity. But maintain open plan spaces as the permanent working environment to encourage learning and the flow of ideas.