Friday, May 18, 2012

How to use (video)communication tools in international projects

This list of hopefully practical and useful advice is based on my personal experience of running and participating in Nordic and Baltic projects. For five months now I have been working in Sweden and have been involved in projects involving Estonian, Finnish, Polish and Swedish team-members, people who are not only in different countries, but also in different cities, offices and cultures. By now I can state from my experience that it is possible to minimize travelling and run international projects with modern telecommunication tools. It is difficult, but possible. Here are a few subjective hints. I would greatly appreciate any advice and hints for myself and other "teleworkers" in the comments!

The tools.
One should use all the communication tools there are available. For example I use the following:
- Telephone
- E-mail
- Skype (calls, videocalls, desktop sharing)
- MS Live Communicator (calls, desktop sharing)
- Cisco/Tandberg videomeeting
- Telia Telemöte phone-conferencing

Currently there is no one solution that dominates the rest so for different situations and different meetings you should use different tools. In my experience:
- Telephone and Telemöte have the best quality and reliability and should be used if video or desktop sharing is not needed and it is very important that the discussion is not blurred by breaking communication. (Critical timeframe, Information sharing for a team)
- Skype (video)conferencing is very useful for talking to someone whom you know well and want to have a longer conversation. (Face-to-face meetings, longer not nervous discussions, "How are things going" meetings.)
- Cisco/Tandberg has great quality and they are the best option for telemeetings. The downside is that the devices are expensive and there might be difficulties in booking the meetingroom where they are. You also need to be in the meetingroom to use them. (Introductions. Nervous topics. "Creating a solution" teamwork)
- Live Communicator and Skype chatting is good for operative work.

Getting it to work:
- Use a headset for your phone and never leave it at home. If you are afraid of looking weird while "talking to yourself" then visit Stockholm T-bana and see how the whole city is going around talking to themselves.
- Get a good headset for your computer. Indeed Logitech is 5 times more expensive than the cheapest option, but it is 10-100 times less expensive than travelling or getting a confusion in the project team.
- Spend time on reading the instructions, testing it and getting the calls to work.
- Getting the (video)conference to work takes time so agree with the other parties to set up the "call" 15 minutes before the planned meeting. My worst experience was a four-way videoconference that was 45 minutes setting-up and 15 minutes of meeting.
- Agree with your employer about the costs so you would not have to worry about the money. International calls are expensive, but again you should compare it to plane tickets or the project being screwed up because of mis-communication.
- Learn good english and do not be afraid to use it. If there is trouble understanding then do not give up, but change to a higher-quality tool. Like telephone or Cisco/Tandberg.
- ...and last but not least: Be firm on getting things to work without travelling and over telecommunications. It is a skill and therefore requires practice from all parties, but it is possible.

Social aspects:
 Working in multi-office and multi-country teams requires some thought on the social aspects. This is true for both separate meetings and the general relation development. Here are a few thoughts:
- When choosing the tools you should think about the dynamics of communication. For example if you have a 1-1 meeting then it is OK to do it over Skype. 4-1 is a quite different situation and for that 1 person to be included in the discussion it is important that the communication line is of the highest quality. So use professional videoconferencing and suitable rooms. For 1-1-1-1 it is again OK to use Skype, because everyone is on equal terms.
- Working in different locations means that the "coffee corner" information does not spread automatically. So you need to put an effort into that. Just call/e-mail/chat people up and ask how are things going. It is OK to do that on company time.
- Cultural, personal and organizational differences and language skills are things to consider. Swedes prefer calling, estonians and finns e-mailing. Learn and practice languages. :-)

For the employer/manager:
- Build "telephone booth" rooms in the office where people can talk over the phone without interfering with others. Rooms where you can walk during calling are especially good, because then an hour long phone-meeting is also an exercise.
- Make sure that money will not become a problem for people when using telecommunications. Your employees travelling or failure due to mis-communications is much more expensive than headsets, international calls, video-conference devices, Skype Professional etc.
- Promote the use of (video)conferencing.
- Involve the distant workers in all the conversations.

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