Distance in the Internet… Time Zones and Geos

(Reformatted and relinked from the original post on August 25, 2003 at Java.Net – Also see Time Zones Don’t Matter in the BlogSphere and The Impact of Blogs.Sun.Com)

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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