We’re in the business of bringing together distributed teams of developers for our clients, so the issue of “presence” is very important to us.  As Sean Murphy wrote in a recent post, we use Yammer, Skype and similar tools to create this presence.  These tools can also help teams working in the same building and even in the same office.

Yammer avatarSkype avatarTurbomeeting avatarAdobe Connect logo

I discussed this issue of presence during an interview with Sean Murphy.  In small teams, where everybody works in the same small office, everybody is present to each other, all the time. We’re social animals and that presence is very important to team performance.

So, what about when not everybody in the team works in the same office? Can you still create that team presence?

In many development teams a few people live far enough from the office and prefer to work from home most of the time.  Sometimes they live across the country <!–(e.g., Digg is in California and Jay Adelson, CEO, until recently lived in Queens, NY)–> or even in a different.

But if they are not physically present, how can they stay psychologically present?  Out of sight, but not out of mind, so to speak.

In the old days, we could try to do this with email, the telephone and, when possible, video conferencing (the expensive type).  Then, when pushed came to shove, we just had people travel to meet face to face.

All of those approaches suffered from the same basic flaw: they were a “big deal” to use and they really didn’t help to keep an on-going presence.  When the meeting was over and people hung up the phone or flew back to their respective places, it was back to out of sight, out of mind.  These were, and are, high-friction technologies for sporadic contacts.

That was then.  Today we have more choices, low-friction, inexpensive technologies that can sustain an on-going presence for distributed teams.

At Nearsoft we use primarily Yammer, Skype, Adobe Connect and Turbomeeting.  We’re just starting to use Google Wave in the mix.

Yammer as Virtual Water Cooler

Yammer works pretty much like Twitter, except that the stream is private to your company.  Regardless of where you’re at, the Yammer stream is constantly going by and even when you’re not focusing on it, the activity creates a sense of presence.

You can comment or ask questions or just lurk.  The posts range from “water cooler” chat to announcements to “big, important issue” discussions.

As I mentioned to Sean, with Yammer “even if I am not reading each posting individually, I get a sense of people being ‘there’ as the stream flows through.”

With the new “communities” feature we can create private streams for each client team easily (i.e., before it was doable, but not easy).  A community can include people with disparate email addresses (e.g., nearsoft.com, ourclients.com, anybodyelse.com).

Both the Firefox plugin and the iPhone client announce the number of unread messages in the queue, so you’re always motivated to come back for more.

Skype as Task Force Command

Some of the smaller teams use Skype for on-going group chats, instead of one-on-one exchanges.  They keep a group chat window open all the time and people post comments or questions in it.  They tend to have more task-specific discussions; the threads tend to be longer, too.

The text chat can be easily turned into an impromptu voice conference when the conversation gets too involved.

Technically, we could also use Skype for video conferencing, but for the most part we don’t.

Turbomeeting for Hand Waving

The other advantage of being co-located with your teammates is the ability to take advantage of the nearest whiteboard for a discussion.

For that we use Turbomeeting.  Anybody can fire up a Turbomeeting session to create a collaborative online space, use it to make some sketches or mark up a drawing and close it down.  This allows people to communicate with pictures and gestures, beyond voice and text.

Adobe Connect for the Well-Dressed

A couple of our client teams use Adobe Connect as their on-going collaborative space.  It integrates text, audio and video very nicely (though it is also more expensive than the others).

These folks are the most hard core because they not only keep a space always open, they all keep their video cameras turned on!  Sorry, no working-in-my-pajamas allowed.

Google Wave All-in-One?

We’re just getting our toes wet with this technology.  What it’s easy to see already is that Google Wave integrates all these modalities and more in it: text, images, voice, video and private threads.  With extensions, it already supports audio and video conferencing, whiteboarding and document sharing, and even collaborative mind mapping.

Essential to Team Coherence

Presence is essential to team coherence.  Indeed, it is essential to there being a team at all.  It’s not possible to have a team of one.  The smallest team, a team of two people, requires that the two share a common space, although this does not have to be a physical location.  They have to be on the same wave, so to speak in order to accomplish more than any one of them could on their own.

This requires, among other things, that each be there for the other.  Distributed teams need to pay close attention to this and come up with ways for creating this presence even when team members don’t share the same physical space.  Otherwise, you end up with multiple, disjointed teams.

At Nearsoft we used these tools primarily to create presence now, but we’re constantly on the lookout for new tools and techniques.

I’d like to hear about what others may use for this purpose.