Practice: whiteboard

XII.6 November + December 2005
Page: 42
Digital Citation

Small world, water coolers, and the challenge of remote collaboration

Lada Gorlenko

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Face it: The world shrinks a little every day. Once, we chose our friends among the folks living next door and our business partners from places within a driving—or even walking—distance. Now, we measure distances in time zones, and we may never meet many of our close allies in person. The big world now sits at our fingertips, just keystrokes away.

We have embraced the change, but have we really understood it?

In the past ten years, I've spent more time in front of a screen than in front of a human face. Part of it I attribute to the nature of the job, but it has become a lifestyle—and, dare I say, an essential ingredient of who I am. If you know that feeling, perhaps you too stopped typing one day and asked yourself what virtual communication—and remote collaboration in particular—really means to you, what about it brings you joy and gratification, and what annoys and saddens. Perhaps, like me, you caught yourself thinking: "if only [insert your favorite explanation], we would have a much better rapport with that chap on the other side of the screen."

So what did you insert in the brackets above?

Maybe, as many do, you mentioned a tool feature. "If only we could have this feature or that feature," I hear. "We lack the right toolkit to make remote collaboration work. Give me enhanced capabilities, smarter virtual meeting places, wider connections, better video links, a sense of shared physical space, avatars to support one's presence, and a bunch of other helpful features." "Just give me all this," I hear, "and the magic will happen." The eager interaction designer in me nods happily and stands on her toes ready to work on a killer collaboration tool. The pondering human in me warns that I will fail if I bet the success of remote collaboration on tools alone.

What special features does face-to-face collaboration have that remote collaboration lacks?

Whenever I read about this or discuss it, it all boils down to one answer: the water-cooler effect. You know, that place down the corridor where you bump into people by chance, exchanging a glance, a smile, a greeting, gossip. Not the place itself, though... but what it represents—something ephemeral, yet so intrinsic to human nature and so important to establishing personal connections and striking business deals. The water cooler works miracles. We hardly notice its presence, yet we feel its absence intensely. In remote collaboration, many of us long for that instant bond, striving to find but never quite succeeding.

Do you miss a water cooler when communicating online?

I did, until one day I stopped taking remote collaboration for granted. We have long known that management skills do not come with years of work experience, presentation skills do not depend on the ability to draw pretty pictures, and writing skills do not reflect one's talent for chatting. Remote collaboration skills differ not one iota. Blessed few of us grew up acquiring them seamlessly in our formative years. We found ourselves thrown into remote collaboration without a lifesaver. "Just do it; just go with the flow." The result: Some learn to swim and thoroughly enjoy it; some just manage to keep afloat, and some drown and so distrust online communication altogether. We may never have bothered to understand and define a distinctive set of remote collaboration skills, but it's about time we acknowledged their existence.

Can remote collaboration simply take place, with no special effort?

Not any more—at least, not for me. The water-cooler effect does not depend on the specific attributes of face-to-face interaction as much as it does on my own psychology: my attitudes to face-to-face encounters, the behaviors I demonstrate and the feelings I experience. My upbringing and education have conditioned me to prefer things I can experience with my senses over what I imagine with my reflections. "Trust what you see, not what you hear. Seeing is believing. If you think it does not exist, try to touch it." I can read the emotions of people I can see, and I know that others can read mine when they can see me. This is all about the decision to trust. My trust in my physical senses makes the water-cooler place special for me. What I see in the person in front of me factors much more heavily in my trust than what the person tells me about himself.

Remote collaboration denies us most behavioral cues and forces us to rely on verbal communication most of the time. "Trust what you see" must change to "trust what you hear," even to "trust what you are told, without having the proof." We resist it. For adults, it is counterintuitive. It goes against our typical behavior. To collaborate remotely as effectively as face-to-face, I have to learn more than just new skills. I have to learn new attitudes, new behaviors, and new feelings. True, the new instincts will never override my old ones, but I have to learn to build trust—from very different material. I have to learn to trust myself that I can do it, and I have to learn to trust my remote partners that they both can and want to do it, too. Enhanced tools can give us the means to succeed in remote collaboration, but they cannot determine the success of our personal journeys.

So, how do you feel about it?

"Very differently from you," some will tell me. "It's all very nice, but remote will never measure up to face-to-face. I still feel the person is a stranger, until I look into her eyes or shake her hand." To this I will reply, "You may not have this luxury. That's the trade-off of modern life," I will say. We reach more people than we ever could before, but the channels through which we do it will always be weaker than physical presence. Get over it and accept remote collaboration as equal to the face-to-face variety. We cannot have our cake and eat it, too.

The pondering interaction designer in me welcomes the challenge of designing new experiences to support the change. The emotional human in me resists the challenge of the change itself.

Face it: The small world will only shrink further. Will you ever trust me without shaking my hand?

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Lada Gorlenko

About the Author:

Lada Gorlenko is a user experience designer at the Usability Competency Centre, IBM UK. She is also a leading member of IxDA, the Interaction Design Association. In the past decade, Lada has worked on a wide variety of projects, from researching cross-cultural communication and remote collaboration, to designing and evaluating virtual reality and self-service interfaces. In professional online discussions, she sometimes comes across as a ranting aggressive male in his mid-40s.


Elizabeth Buie
User Works, Inc.
1738 Elkin Road, Suite 138
Silver Spring, MD 20903, USA
Fax: 301-431-4834

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