Do you know your team's "room tone"?
I recently sat in on my friend David Bernstein's new patterns course. David and his wife Staci are also filmmakers and Staci was there to record both days and to create a self-paced version of the course. At the beginning of the second day David told us that we needed to sit quietly for 30 seconds or so while Staci captured the "room tone". They explained that when during the editing process, when they cut to David's reactions to questions or to students reactions to David, they would need add in the ambient room noise or "room tone" to make it sound more natural. Not being that level of filmmaker, it made sense to me, but I had never heard of the term before.
However, I do know the concept. I worked in retail for many years and I would develop a sixth sense about if things were ok on the selling floor in the store. Too quiet or noise out of place meant that I should investigate to make sure that everything was all right.
As a ScrumMaster and Agile Coach, I develop the same feeling about the team's work environment. Depending on the team the "room tone" will be different and in iterative development the tone will be different depending on the stage of the iteration the team is in.
If a team is mid-sprint and working normally, I would expect to hear a low drone of people collaborating. If I hear silence or shouting, I need to see what is wrong. The level will change from team to team but there should be some conversation almost all of the time.
Late in the sprint things tend to quiet down a bit. Concentration on finishing the last stories is high and most of the decisions have been made. An up-tick in the noise late in a sprint can mean that there is a problem.
Early in the day, I tend to notice more noise as people settle in for the day and get going. While it may be normal for a team, a very quiet early day might mean an underlying issue.
Obviously the greatest case for collocation of your team is collaboration and cooperation, but it can also help you keep tabs on the health of the team. When you have people working in private offices or different locations, it is much harder to hear the "room tone". You can hear it, but it will be with careful observation of email and other electronic communication.
We can't always move people. It just does not make sense in a lot of cases. However I think that we are on the verge of a revolution in telecommunications for remote workers. Doug Shimp and I have been working with Polycom this year and have been beta testing a new personal high definition video conferencing system. This system allows us to work together as if we were setting next to each other in the same office, although we are over 1500 miles apart.
When combined with a multi-point system in the team room, you can create a virtual team that can really work together and you will be able to hear the "team tone". I'm not in the business of selling teleconferencing equipment, rather I'm in the business of improving software development team productivity. If you have a distributed team, you should ask yourself how you can mitigate the impediment of a non-collocated team. I'm thinking that the ROI on a system that would put all your people into the same room, virtually, would be very high.