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Context: the Fifth Element of Online Work

At our last webinar, co-sponsored by AgileCraft, we gave some power tips on how to create successful scaled distributed agile teams. From terminology to estimation methods, to facilitating ceremonies in multiple timezones, we managed to pack quite a bit into an hour! We even created this excellent infographic for you as a special takeaway from the event.

The Four Elements: Voice, Video, Chat and Screen Share

During the webinar, we touched on the importance of voice, video, chat and screen sharing as the essential four elements in an agile online workplace. These provide the foundation for communication - people sharing information and ideas visually and verbally. These are critical capabilities for a distributed team. They and the communication needs they represent have fundamentally shaped the current online workplace. But, what about the future?

In Luc Besson’s epic 1997 film, “The Fifth Element”, a futuristic earth is under attack from the Great Evil. The only way to defeat it and save the world is by uniting all four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - with the mysterious and prophesied fifth element. This turns out to be a superhuman woman named Leeloo, who with the help of a brave taxi driver, gets to the temple on time to unite the elements, create the divine light, and rescue the planet. (Note our awesome custom cover image by illustrator Josh Taylor!)

Context: the Fifth Element

Context in online communication is much like our friend Leeloo - a mysterious and unknown fifth element that unites the four traditional elements of online communication - voice, video, chat and screen sharing - and makes them into a whole which makes the world a better place. In the case of context, it can’t save the world, but it can sure make the online office a friendlier and more productive place.

What is this whole context thing, then? Webster’s says: the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

When it comes to the online workplace, it goes deeper than that. Context is the ability to glean better perspective based on clues that people broadcast about themselves: their plans, activities, availability, location, or mood. In person, we do this through a variety of ways - we express emotions on our faces, keep a door open or closed, sit with specific people, have a phone up to our ear, occupy a conference room or office. For example, if you were in a conference room with the boss, it’s unlikely a co-worker would tap on the door and pull you out. But, if you were getting a coffee in the break room, they’d assume you were free to chat and wouldn’t think twice about engaging with you in conversation. These context cues create the natural flow of how humans interact socially in the workplace.

Recreating Hallway Moments and Serendipity Online

Online, it’s not quite as easy because everyone’s circumstances aren’t obvious, which makes it really hard to fully understand or assess much based on setting.  You could be in an important Skype call with your boss when a co-worker keeps blowing up your phone, and another is sending you incessant pings on chat. Sure, you can try to ignore it, but it will distract you and keep you from engaging fully in your current conversation. Status settings in video and text chat require a person to make sure that it’s up to date rather than just going about their business and letting other people just naturally observe what they’re up to. It takes effort and energy that just distracts from getting work done.

There are also the impromptu conversations that are really easy to miss. When teams are distributed, the challenge is much more about timing and those “hallway moments” where great ideas are exchanged when inspiration hits. It’s not enough to be able to share ideas and information from great distances; it’s being able to do it in ways that are meaningful and effective that don’t add friction to flow of work getting done. This is grounded in being able to engage at the right moment at the right time with the right people based on the information they are able to radiate about themselves.

The ability to take advantage of serendipity - the hallway moment, the water cooler “aha!” conversation - is what drives us at Sococo. We’re constantly dreaming up new ways to remove friction from everyday work life for distributed teams. What are your ideas? Let us know in the comments.