Daily stand up meetings, or huddles as Scrum calls them, are a core Agile practice that promotes communication and project visibility. They are an invaluable tool for identifying but not solving problems. So what do you do when a part of your team is in another city or continent?
You iHuddle.

Er, ah, what is an iHuddle?

It is a video conference stand up meeting using inexpensive webcams. This allows you to see your remote teammates and to interact with them almost as if they were in the same room.  This way you can read people’s facial expressions and see their mood. It is easier to tell if they are tired, frustrated, bored or distracted. It is also easier to see if they are excited and eager to start their work.  It is almost as good as being there.

Almost but not quite. Once the iHuddle is over, some of the distance communication deterrence factor sets back in. You can’t just turn around and talk to them as if there were in the same room you are. You can’t see their energy level, frustration level or interest level fluctuate during that day like you can when all of your team is in the room with you.

I started using iHuddles when working on a project where we had a few developers that worked at a remote office a few days a week. They worked there to make their commutes on those days easier, much easier. When I started on the project we were conducting the huddle over a conference bridge. I find meeting over a phone line can be very hard. You don’t get the same, well let’s say vibe, over the phone as you get when you are talking to a person face to face.

Anyway, some of us on the project had Macs and as it worked out there was at least one Mac in both locations that we could use for the huddle, ehr, a, I mean iHuddle. So we started using iChat, the built in Mac video conferencing software and the cameras and microphones built into our Mac Books. And you know what, it was a good experience. We could see each other, pick up on the vibe of the day at both locations and it felt more like collaborating and less like listening to a 401-k presentation conference call.

As time went on, we experimented with other video conferencing software such as Oovoo and Skype. Their big advantage was the cross platform capability. One of the other developers on the team used Linux as his development environment. While he rarely worked at home, every once in a while he did and he felt it was unfair that he couldn’t be part of the video conferencing. As it happens Skype video works with Linux and we could address his concern by using Skype on the days he wasn’t in the office. We also got to experiment with three and four stream video conferences. The video quality degrades pretty quickly as you add more cameras to the conference. Not bad enough to give up on video but enough to notice.

I started to think about this because we recently began working with a client that has offices in Virginia and Seattle. They want their two teams to work closely together in order to create the next generation of their product. In order to help them maximize their communication I suggested that they could connect their two team rooms together by running a video conference all of the time. At first this seemed like a very expensive proposition, having seen the prices of top end video conferencing boxes and their associated data connections I would agree. So I explained to them that all they need is a spare computer with a webcam on either end and no more bandwidth then they have now and their eyes and faces started to light up. They recognized that they could have an inexpensive full time video connection between these two team rooms that will help the two teams become one so that they can deliver their next generation software as a more cohesive group.

If part of your team is remote (even part of the time) give iHuddle a shot and see if it helps improve the quality of your meetings.

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