The Case Against the Meeting Room Conference Phone

Why I recommend to only conduct single site and fully distributed meetings. The moment one active participant is remote everyone should join on their own line.

Agile has been a strong proponent for collocated or single-site teams. As teams have become more distributed we have to mitigate some challenges that come with remote team members. Meetings can be especially difficult. The pandemic has forced distributed meetings on many of us who only had co-located teams before. When we start going back to our offices we may see that many teams will still have some remote members. This scenario has the potential for meetings including distributed clusters of attendees that are inferior and less productive than fully distributed meetings.

Martin Fowler (2016) defined four different team types:

  • Single-site teams where everyone is co-located in the same physical location
  • Satellite teams occur when you have most of the team co-located, but a few members working remotely.
  • multi-site teams team have two or more co-located groups at separate locations within a larger team.
  • Remote-first, or fully distributed, teams where everyone works in a separate location, usually from home, and thus all communication occurs online.

We can classify meetings the same way. 

Single-Site Meetings

Single-site meetings, where everyone is in the same room, are ideal. Everyone can see everyone well. Whiteboard sessions with markers and PostIt notes are easier for most to draw and brainstorm. Checking out (or multi-tasking) is more obvious and therefore more difficult. The occasional sidebar or people talking at once, while not ideal, is not detrimental.

Colocated discussions are productive enough for people to travel across oceans for important meetings.

Satellite Meetings

Satellite meetings, where the bulk of the people are in one location, and one or two other people are remote tend to badly impact and exclude the remote participants. The conference systems do not handle multiple people talking at a time well making it impossible for the remote persons to follow the discussion while the group can. Some people speak softer than others. I have been in many meetings where we had so many people that not everybody could fit at the table. Forget about hearing what they said from the back unless they were shouting. Conversely, the remote participant cannot be heard easily. If there is a heated discussion they have no chance to participate unless the facilitator keeps asking for their input. 

Multi-Site Meetings

Multi-site meetings, where some people are collocated in various locations have similar problems as the satellite meetings. Because there is no dominant group multi-site meetings will be more inclusive for most remote participants. However, I have seen multi-site meetings break down into separate discussions by location. This fragmentation can be leveraged and mitigated using variations on The Stepladder Technique.

Remote-First or Fully Distributed Meetings

Remote-first meetings, where everyone is on their own conference line address most of the satellite and multi-site meeting drawbacks. It is a level playing field. Everyone can hear everyone. Any sidebars can be with anyone. With new tools like zoom, it is easy to create breakout sessions ignoring the location of the participants. 

Avoid distributed meetings with conference rooms. Where possible conduct either single site or fully distributed meetings.

Links

Remote versus Co-located Work – Martin Fowler (2016)
From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver – Johanna Rothman, Mark Kilby (2019)
The remote backlog grooming/refinement session – Sam Liang (2017)

Feature Image source Co-located teams versus Remote teams, Key Considerations

The opinions represented in this blog are my own and not that of my employer or the organizations that I work with.

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