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7.4 Virtual Office

Many operations teams work from home rather than an office. Since work is virtual, with remote hands touching hardware when needed, we can work from anywhere. Therefore, it is common to work from anywhere. When necessary, the team meets in chat rooms or other virtual meeting spaces rather than physical meeting rooms. When teams work this way, communication must be more intentional because you don’t just happen to see each other in the office.

It is good to have a policy that anyone who is not working from the office takes responsibility for staying in touch with the team. They should clearly and periodically communicate their status. In turn, the entire team should take responsibility for making sure remote workers do not feel isolated. Everyone should know what their team members are working on and take the time to include everyone in discussions. There are many tools that can help achieve this.

7.4.1 Communication Mechanisms

Chat rooms are commonly used for staying in touch throughout the day. Chat room transcripts should be stored and accessible so people can read what they may have missed. There are many chat room “bots” (software robots that join the chat room and provide services) that can provide transcription services, pass messages to offline members, announce when oncall shifts change, and broadcast any alerts generated by the monitoring system. Some bots provide entertainment: At Google, a bot keeps track of who has received the most virtual high-fives. At Stack Exchange, a bot notices if anyone types the phrase “not my fault” and responds by selecting a random person from the room and announcing this person has been randomly designated to be blamed.

Higher-bandwidth communication systems include voice and video systems as well as screen sharing applications. The higher the bandwidth, the better the fidelity of communication that can be achieved. Text-chat is not good at conveying emotions, while voice and video can. Always switch to higher-fidelity communication systems when conveying emotions is more important, especially when an intense or heated debate starts.

The communication medium with the highest fidelity is the in-person meeting. Virtual teams greatly benefit from periodic in-person meetings. Everyone travels to the same place for a few days of meetings that focus on long-term planning, team building, and other issues that cannot be solved online.

7.4.2 Communication Policies

Many teams establish a communication agreement that clarifies which methods will be used in which situations. For example, a common agreement is that chat rooms will be the primary communication channel but only for ephemeral discussions. If a decision is made in the chat room or an announcement needs to be made, it will be broadcast via email. Email is for information that needs to carry across oncall shifts or day boundaries. Announcements with lasting effects, such as major policies or design decisions, need to be recorded in the team wiki or other document system (and the creation of said document needs to be announced via email). Establishing this chat–email–document paradigm can go a long way in reducing communication problems.

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