A study of thirty-eight hackathons found that radical collocation contributed significantly to programmers rapidly advancing their technical work, and the participants left the sessions with greater sense of social well being. (Trainer, Kalyanasundaram, Chaihirunkarn and Herbsleb, 2015). Nomadic workers share a similar collaborative intensity when they are thrust back into in-person collaboration at the home office: close proximity to their peers and continuous small team meetings.
The Carnegie Mellon hacker study appeared in an article submitted to this year’s Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing Conference (CSCW2016). One of the more interesting findings that came out of the study is that the productivity improvements attributed to radical collocation were dependent on having the right type of collaboration spaces and the effectiveness of collaboration tools (Trainer et al., 2015).
Each year, top researchers and industry experts gather at CSCW to examine the technical and social challenges that influence collaboration. Studies on the merits of collocated over distributed teams appear frequently in CSCW research submissions. Apparently, this the first time hackathons have been studied for their intensive team collaboration sessions. Conclusions from this research could lead to meaningful improvements for workforce nomads, employees who are unchained from their desks, including the sales force, consultants, freelancers and entrepreneurs.
This study confirms the importance culture has on providing the right type of collaboration spaces in the office. In the hackathons, daylong group sessions were held in rooms lined with individual stations and central worktables. The reported benefit of the close seating arrangements included overhearing conversation (as opposed to direct participation) as a means of reference and benchmarking (Trainer et al., 2015). In a similar fashion, Agile coding (Agile Methodology, 2016) has influenced the close workstation seating arrangements seen across IT departments. Now every enterprise is tearing down dividers, assuming close proximity will increase the productivity of the entire community, but not everyone is happy about the change (Waber, Magnolfi and Lindsay, 2014). Many workers complain that the lack of privacy impacts their productivity (Kaufman, 2014). Perhaps the loudest voices come from the Nomads, who are accustomed to working out of their sanctuaries and cannot find private refuge in the office.
Huddle rooms are also due for an overhaul. A single small table inside a glassed enclosure would not work for these hackers, and these "fish bowls" are highly reverberant, so they are not effective for remote collaboration either. The answer to achieving greater office productivity is to provide a range of individual, team and private spaces throughout the office. Furniture manufacturers are now offering innovative media-enabled walk-up stations, semi-private enclosures and social hubs that meet the needs of today's open-space workers, including the nomads (Steelcase, 2015).
In terms of content, surprisingly, not all hackers focus on project deliverables when they radically collocate. The hackathon study revealed positive outcomes when the teams addressed interpersonal needs, such as resolving discrepancies in technical expertise among the team members. Findings also indicate that observing others builds familiarity among teammates. Having a sense a place fostered common interests, and the situational pressure revealed personality traits (Trainer et al., 2015) unlikely to appear in online forums.
The report contends that hackers tend to place greater emphasis on preparing for their collocation sessions and following up afterwards. We can conclude that nomads, also less accustomed to physically gathering routinely with their peers, behave in a similar fashion. Research on video-mediated distributed meetings identified similar needs: “flexible interfaces for information sharing in multiple meeting contexts so content can be both easily referred to in the moment and also found again later” (Marlow, Carter, Good, and Chen, 2015, pg. 1). Organizations can learn from these findings, and improve the productivity of their nomadic workforce for both in person and virtual sessions by providing tools that foster meeting planning, easily capture the live content for subsequent review, and provide opportunities to connect socially between sessions.
Software products like Slack are addressing the needs of nomads coming in and out of the office. Software can wrap around the live huddle experience and remote sessions. Multipoint video conferencing could incorporate similar “social channels" to provide opportunities to plan meetings, seamlessly escalate modalities, and congregate virtually in a similar fashion to the hacker's radical collocation.
Countering the claims that collocation makes for faster and more effective communication and greater team bonding is research also submitted to CSCW2016 indicating that physical distance does not necessarily impede productivity (Warsha, Witaker, Matthews, Smith, 2016). The Warsha study examined over 1200 online enterprise communities and the negative impact geographic distance has on team interaction. For small teams in enterprise communities, the “fault line” was less prevalent. The contributing factor to positive virtual team collaboration was the use of multiple tools that supported asynchronous collaboration and resource sharing, which reinforced a sense of community (Warsha, et. al., 2016).
An increasing percentage of an organization’s workforce is not in residence. By 2020, 60% of today’s office-based employees are predicted to be working remotely (Sawers, 2012). Business managers need to respond to the productivity requirements of the nomadic workforce. More staff will be dependent on remote tools for collaboration. The in-person team meetings will be less frequent but more intense. Space planners and technologists should take note of the benefits achieved by hackers when they converge. Nomadic workers will be more productive with the right combination of collaboration spaces and software tools when they come into the office and on the road. In addition to more rapid innovation, the benefits include employee contribution validation and “durable ties” inside the organization’s social community (Trainer et al., 2015).
TURNING POINT is Mark Peterson's personal take on innovation and collaboration influencing today's corporate strategy. To have a conversion about what takes to implement collaborative solutions efficiently and at enterprise scale, contact Mark Peterson
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TURNING POINT is Mark Peterson's personal take on innovation and collaboration influencing today's corporate strategy. To have a conversion about what takes to implement collaborative solutions efficiently and at enterprise scale, contact Mark Peterson.