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When I'm Remote, You're Remote
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<h1>When I'm Remote, You're Remote</h1>
<p>Communication between people drops off radically as soon as their walking distance from each other exceeds the length of a school bus.&nbsp;This is&nbsp;<em><strong>The Bus-Length Communication Principle</strong></em>, a&nbsp;term coined by Alistair Cockburn (2006), one of the founders of the Agile Software movement. &nbsp;It is a digestible restatement of previous research into communication distances by Professor Thomas J. Allen.&nbsp; Professor Allen's research findings (1984), known as the Allen Curve, have had heavy influence in the industry from shaping architectural decisions to changing core management philosophy.&nbsp; The Allen Curve states that there is a strong negative correlation between physical distance and the frequency of communication.</p>
<p><span style="color: #252525; font-family: sans-serif;"><img class="jive-image" src="" style="display: block; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;" /></span>
<p>Now of course, this research was found to hold true in the days before more advanced collaboration tools were widely available.&nbsp; Today, we live in the world of Slack and Skype, with access as close as our front pocket.&nbsp; So, problem solved?&nbsp; Let's fast forward to Professor Allen's more recent research (2006-2011):</p>
<blockquote class="jive_macro_quote jive-quote jive_text_macro">
<p>[...] For example, rather than finding that the probability of telephone communication increases with distance, as face-to-face probability decays, our data show a decay in the use of all communication media with distance.</p>
<p>Evidence is shown in the chart below. You can see that as the probability of face-to-face communication increased, which is directly correlated to physical distance, so did the probability for telephone (or electronic) forms of communication.&nbsp; And on the inverse side, as face-to-face communication decreased, so did other forms of communication.&nbsp; Had there been any substitution of telephone or electronic for face-to-face, points would have fallen in the upper-left quadrant.</p>
<p><img class="image-1 jive-image" src="" style="width: auto; height: auto; display: block; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;" __jive_id="1173394" />
<p>Problem not solved.&nbsp; Any communication outside of face-to-face communication is not necessarily a substitution for such, but more likely a supplement.&nbsp; So now that we know this is a problem, let's look at why it's a problem through another term coined by Cockburn (2004); <em><strong>Osmotic Communication</strong></em>.&nbsp; Osmotic Communication suggests that information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis.&nbsp; When osmotic communication is in place, questions and answers flow naturally and with surprisingly little disturbance among the team.&nbsp; Cockburn gives us an example<span style="color: #333333; font-family: 'Helvetica Neue Light', HelveticaNeue-Light, 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;">:</span>
<blockquote>We had four people doing pair programming. The boss walked in and asked my partner a question. I started answering it, but gave the wrong name of a module. Nancy, programming with Neil, corrected me, without Neil ever noticing that she had spoken or that a question had been asked.</blockquote>
<p>Cockburn admits that while he has had some luck with teams utilizing always-on video cameras and microphones, it has not been able to replicating close proximity osmosis.</p>
<p>So, why doesn't heavier use of IRC or Slack solve the problem?&nbsp; The benefit of Osmotic Communication comes with the fact that it happens passively, as in the example above.&nbsp; That is, people in the same room don't necessarily have to concentrate on each individual conversation for the team to reap the benefits, as in the example above.&nbsp; While chat solutions help, they are active in nature, meaning that individuals have to take time to read each individual conversation, essentially staring at the chat room all day, in order to truly benefit.&nbsp; It isn't entirely productive.&nbsp; We could ping all team members every time a conversation is happening, but that's wasteful, as we almost never need to bother every individual on the team for every conversation.</p>
<p>So, what do we do?&nbsp; Unfortunately, the answer is, not a whole lot.&nbsp; Though being more conscious about the hurdles of distributed teams can help us alleviate some of the pain points.&nbsp; Ping more people for conversation, though not enough to be overbearing.&nbsp; Have more discussions over video, but try not to overuse them.&nbsp; Be mindful that domain knowledge spreads much slower throughout distributed teams, so take an active approach of keeping everyone informed.</p>
<p>Despite all of that, there is a plus side to the Bus-Length Communication Principle; being outside the bus-zone acts as a great cone of silence.&nbsp; From a situation evaluated by Cockburn (2003):</p>
<blockquote class="jive-quote">Jim needs quiet time to focus, real freedom from distractions, and a high-speed connection to reach the development environment. He can&rsquo;t work in his home or at his desk. In a reversal of the usual project priorities, it seems he can&rsquo;t be close and available to his teammates, he needs to be invisible to them.&nbsp; I ask [...] whether Jim couldn&rsquo;t get a second office somewhere else in the building
<br />
<br />In a casual phone call one day, Lisa mentions, &ldquo;Oh, that Cone of Silence is working really well.&rdquo; Apparently, Jim really does go to that office [on another floor], and other people don&rsquo;t bother him. For the first time in over a year, he has enough quiet time to focus on his list of work. He concentrates, he is happy, he makes progress.&nbsp; Isolating the team lead in a Cone of Silence is disadvantageous to a project under normal circumstances. Only when we reached the two-alarm stage was it a worthwhile trade-off.</blockquote>
<p><img alt="Maxwell Smart in a cone of silence.jpg" class="jive-image" src="" style="display: block; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;" />
<p>In this example, the distance helps accelerate the team's work, rather than hinder it.&nbsp; By knowing where communication begins to break down, you can allow yourself, or your teammates more head-down time without being bothered by the noise of osmotic communication, or the increased rate at which people interact and interrupt.</p>
<p>It's important to see the Bus-Length Principle from both sides, as only when you do, are you able to fully utilize, and implement, proper techniques to better work with your team, distributed or not.</p>
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