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Distance in the Internet... Time Zones and Geos

Posted by pelegri on August 25, 2003 at 10:57 AM PDT

I recently attended a presentation on a study corelating the mode of
interactions (face to face, phone, email) between participants with
the distance between them. The study used geographic
distance and reported that people geographically close to each other
would use face to face communication and that they would
start using phone and email as people got farther away .
This may be correct for the
community used in that study but the results do not match my
experience: we use email much more often than that
and I believe geographic distance is not a good way to
measure distance in the internet.

I interact with many people, some have offices in my building but
others are located in other sites in the West Coast (of the USA) and
elsewhere in the world. Most of my interactions with other software
engineers are through email, regardless where the recipient is.

Email is the prefered medium for our engineering community. Email is
asynchronous, fast, and can be scanned quickly. We complement email
with (synchronous) meetings where people are seated around a virtual
room, some face-to-face, some teleconfering using phone, video and
VNC. Some groups also use IM and chat rooms.

My experience is that geographic distance is much less important than
time-zone distance. When the time-zone distance is small, email and
even teleconfs hide any geographic distance. You can engage in a
sequence of email messages and solve a problem. Or you can arrange
for a virtual meeting and do high-bandwidth exchanges. Sure, there
are some problems with virtual meetings and one needs to pay attention
to the non-local participants, but the problem is manageable.

Start increasing the time-zone distance and communication becomes more
complicated: the number of mail exchanges in a day are reduced; there
are fewer overlapping hours in the work day. Increase the time-zone
distance, or include multiple sites (say India, USA and Europe) in the
conversations and email exchanges slow to one a day, and meetings just
can't happen.

So, what works for collaboration over large time-zone distances?

Here are some ideas that we have used:

  • Design out the problem: rearrange the tasks so that where fast
    turnaround is required the time-zone distance is low.
  • Complement with additional interaction mechanisms:
    I've found web sites, Wiki and bulletin boards to be less
    susceptible to time zones as they are more static and capture snapshots
    of exchanges. These mechanisms are not a complete solution; if you have
    suggestions and/or expererience, please share it.
  • Kick-start the relationship.
    The effect of time-zone distance makes it specially hard to "figure
    out" the other party so one can translate idioms (typed or vocal) into
    their intended meaning. One trick that we have used is to ask for a
    picture and for some short biographical blurb of the other party and then
    we post this in an internal site.
    Then it may be easier to add other bits of information to that core to
    "figure out" the party. Another, more traditional mechanism in the
    business world, is to fly some people across the time zone.
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