How to encourage casual collaboration at work between different offices?
February 18, 2009 9:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm part of a group of about 70 people (at a company of tens of thousands) spread across the country and we're having a hard time communicating, especially casually. Anyone have any suggestions?

Being spread across the country we lose a lot of the casual water cooler conversation and the chance encounters they bring. "Hey, you're working on the Henderson account? I know Bob Henderson, we should talk", "I'm starting a new project next week similar to one I hear you're working on...can we chat about how your's is going?", "You might know something about ABC software, can you give me a hand?". Those sorts of things.

We're a fairly diverse group -- from slightly aggressive, outspoken folks to quiet, leave-me-alone-I'm-coding types -- but we're mostly technical and often exhibit some of the Dilbertesque cynicism that comes with that.

We've tried wikis and message boards in a few small places, but interest has been almost non-existent.

Does anyone have any ideas, thoughts, books, or anything else that might encourage the sort of casual collaboration we lack? I'm thinking smaller steps at first to combat some of the cynicism, but we'll certainly look at anything that has been shown to work elsewhere.
posted by Tilon to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in a similar situation, but on a smaller team.

Do you guys communicate via IM? If so, and if it's AIM that you use, try out AIM Blast. It's basically like live Twitter in chat form, or an always-open chat room where anyone on the list can participate in the discussion when they want/need to. Otherwise, it can be ignored.

It's been great for both collaborating on projects, and participating in idle water cooler chit-chat.
posted by nitsuj at 9:42 AM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

How often do you get to schedule meetings all together in one place? See if those can be increased, then people can get to know each other better in person. Video conferences won't do the same thing, it's still all about taking turns then.
posted by lizbunny at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2009

Yeah, I would second what nitsuj says about IM. We've been using Office Communicator in my work environment for about 18 months, and I find it a surprisingly fantastic WORK tool. I had my doubts, given my experience with personal life IM, but it really fits a great niche in the work environment, given it's less formal nature. This may not be relevant in your case, but I have also found that to some extent it can help when accents can be a hindrance to spoken communication.
posted by Richat at 9:47 AM on February 18, 2009

Campfire. It's like IM or IRC, only archived and in your browser.
posted by Nelson at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing IM. I my team is spread across the world and we use it for casual conversations all the time.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:55 AM on February 18, 2009

At my old shop we set up a private IRC server behind the firewall. This worked well for us for several reasons:

- there's a ton of IRC clients out there, available for every platform and persuasion

- we could keep open a general channel for all hands, and people could open up their own channels as needed for dedicated discussions.

- IRC addons can be pretty robust, including shared whiteboards, video, and file transfer.

- it's pretty easy to log conversations for reference later

It really helped us keep in touch with the folks in other timezones across our company, and definitely helped us open up those back-channel communication links that are the hallmark of really efficient (and fun) organizations. It's a trivial thing to set up on a cheap linux box in the corner of a server room somewhere.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:58 AM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing IM as well. I'm in a similar situation, and IM works for us. (Also, we tend to BS on the front-end and back-end of our conference calls, which is a good way to get to know folks. Usually, it's the more outgoing folks who kick this off, but more folks participate once they get a feel for the conversation and get comfortable that it's a 'safe' environment.)
posted by brandman at 10:00 AM on February 18, 2009

A couple years ago, I was working on a software project with probably about 20 people spread all throughout the world. We had an IRC room set-up, and everyone always had an IRC client open whenever their computer was on.

Basically, it was just a chatroom with all of us, and periodically someone would throw out an interesting web article they read, or ask a question related to the project. Everyone's IRC client would bounce or flash or something, and people would glance at what was said. Sometimes conversations developed with a few people "chatting". Smaller groups or 1-on-1 chats were also easy to set up in private rooms.

The problem with IMs, in my experience, is that it's mostly 1 on 1 conversations, so I don't think it would work so well with your 70 people. But give everyone an IRC client (mIRC on Windows, Colloquy on Mac), and have them all join a chatroom and you're set.
posted by losvedir at 10:05 AM on February 18, 2009

I'm in a similar situation, with one team of about 10 people spread across two offices. We use IM a lot of for inter-office communication, and it works well. BUT, if i can piggy back, one of our problems is reporting intra-office communications to the other office. (So, if i have an informal chat with someone who sits beside me, the people in other offices don't hear about it. And that's what's causing our problems. Any suggested solutions for that?
posted by Kololo at 10:06 AM on February 18, 2009

Have you considered teleconferencing? A colleague of mine holds weekly teleconferences for 100+ individuals. It's proven reliable and convenient, and enables participants to interact more naturally than do IM/IRC.
posted by terranova at 10:07 AM on February 18, 2009

I've heard good things about Yammer. It's basically a private version of Twitter for your company.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:08 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've heard good things about NING
posted by parabola01 at 10:12 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

We do have a corporate IM system we use but, as losvedir mentions, it tends to be used more for 1:1 or 1:few conversations. I also think it's mostly only used when there's a specific question someone is looking for an answer on.

We've used an IRC-style chatroom in the distant past, but had problems with convincing folks to participate, too. I can see the advantages of this, but I'm not sure how to encourage its use.

(As a side note, I sometimes see IM as something that hurts productivity. Between offering another way to be interrupted and people IMing for 15 minutes when a 30 second phone call would have gotten the same results, I'm not completely sold on it. But that's a whole 'nother issue.)
posted by Tilon at 10:37 AM on February 18, 2009

I suspect that there isn't a particular technical solution to this problem, but I certainly recognize it as I'm part of a team and a telecommuter. With one team leader, we had an awesome dynamic going on, spent a lot of time on the phone, in IM, updating our wiki, and communicating everything via email. With my current team leader, it's all a dead zone. If the leadership doesn't recognize that there's a problem and commit to and take part in a solution (any solution), then you're not going to get far.

When it worked for me, it meant that our documentation and document development was online (and not in email) where others could see it, and that we had a high personal tolerance for a lot of email, and that we were on the same page in terms of the tools we did use and how we were using them.
posted by idb at 10:37 AM on February 18, 2009

Response by poster: How often do you get to schedule meetings all together in one place? See if those can be increased, then people can get to know each other better in person. Video conferences won't do the same thing, it's still all about taking turns then.
posted by lizbunny at 9:43 AM on February 18

Not nearly often enough. We usually have a yearly, in-person meeting with most of the group, but our most recent one was done as a video conference instead for budget reasons. The video conference was okay for occasional use, and we'll probably do more in the future, but it's hard to schedule unless you have a specific, structured agenda.
posted by Tilon at 10:38 AM on February 18, 2009

It's not only about the tool but about the encouragement to use it. If you have a wiki, make sure high profile topics are worked on there. Maybe have contests for content provided. The only time I've seen these things succeed, is when there is high level encouragement, lead by example from the top and a defined strategy to promote it.

Also, you might be interested in looking into Knowledge Management for ideas. Some strategies are not high tech but analyze who is talking to who and encourages new networks to be formed. For example, instead of working in a strict hierarchical structure, project teams are picked and changed in order to encourage new relationships.
posted by Gor-ella at 11:25 AM on February 18, 2009

Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but I've used Ventrilo and/or TeamSpeak for this sort of thing a number of times. 70 people would get way out of control, but quick or casual conversations between 2-5 people would be great. Of course, it would require everyone to have speakers and a microphone, but a decent headset mic can be found in the $15 (US) range easily.

Either server can be split into "channels" or "rooms" for people to have side conversations and one channel can serve as a "general area". Both require a dedicated server, but hosting companies (especially gaming related) often have them for a reasonable rate (~$1 or $2 (US) a month per slot).

Good luck! I hope whatever you go with works out.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 12:06 PM on February 18, 2009

I am in a group of metal artists from around the world. We have a simple email group. I would never bother to go to a message board, but since the emails 'come to me', it is so much easier to connect. I can just hit a quick reply. That way there is no effort involved. Our emails range from helping each other, to idle chit chat 50/50. The amount of emails is about 10-40/day, with the option to filter out the political chit chat if we like by asking people to put 'POL:' in the subject if it is political.

We meet up once a year.

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.
posted by Vaike at 3:36 PM on February 18, 2009

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