Does collaboration software force us apart?

With the increased virtual nature of teams we are naturally being forced to collaborate electronically.  In my particular case my nearest team colleague is 250 miles away in the south of England, the next nearest, my manager, is across the Atlantic in New England.  In our case the team is helped by the fact that I used to be co-located with my colleague.  Also when the team formed we all spent 2 days together which helped form a good bond and understanding.  So here we have built up relationships and talked face to face, and communicate regularly over audio on either one to one or group conversations.

I do however, regularly observe (and am guilty of sometimes) technology being used to avoid talking to someone.  Is that because the team is virtual?  In my opinion it isn’t.  Is it because verbal communication requires more effort?  Not for me.  I think it is because we are beginning to hide behind technology as our society changes.

Most people drive to work and have that physical barrier between them and others.  Most modern housing estates don’t foster community spirit.  Communities are increasing people with like minded interests rather than geographically close.  So in our working environments I feel that we hide behind technology somewhat and thus avoid building strong relationships outside the sphere of our working community.  Collaborative technology will make this division stronger as we identify and label people with bookmarking, social networking and other modern collaborative tools.  I’m a supporter of such technologies though, as I feel it is important to be able to identify expertise in an area you may be working in especially if that data is current (a good example is people call me about email migration projects when I last worked on one 4 years ago and hence I’m not the best person in the organisation to talk about new migration techniques).

My opinion is that we need to assess new technologies, harness their benefits but also understand behavior patterns which may develop when we use them in terms of increased isolation of expert communities.

Some things I try to do to overcome this issue are:

  • Try and talk to someone and meet them if possible when I start working on a task with them.
  • Bring teams together if possible for startup meetings.
  • A tip I will take from Steve is to ask people to send a photo (its much better to visualise a voice – I have got the picture in my head of a voice very wrong in the past).
  • Try and include social communities as well as expert communities in corporate environments, encourage people from different expert areas to interact.
  • Make time to talk (I’m guilty of overusing instant messaging and email).

I’d be interested to hear other peoples thoughts in this area.

Image used under creative commons licence courtesy of “Pathfinder Linden“.


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