Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Are Google Hangouts The Perfect Office Environment?

Short answer: no.

This is the perfect office environment:

But since we can't have that one, let's try to approximate.

Working from home can be awesome. It's certainly not for everyone. Lots of people need that shared office environment to be productive. Some actually prefer to work in an open-space. 

You know, one of these:

your typical open space

Those that prefer to work in an open space can stop reading now.

We, reasonable people, we appreciate what a quiet, private work environment means. When you have your own office, with a door and all, you can actually concentrate. You're less easily distracted, and less stressed. You can have a conversation with a colleague without breaking everybody else's concentration. And yea, you can also give your brain the occasional rest by checking up on Facebook for a few minutes, or playing a couple of Angry Birds levels. 

Yes, games at work - big whoop. As long as you're not overdoing it, they can actually increase your productivity.

"Okay, we get it", you say, "what does this have to do with Google Hangouts?"

To answer that, let's imagine the perfect office environment for a programmer (although it's really the same for anyone who has to concentrate at work, while also working in a team setting). The office in the picture above is pretty, but it isn't that practical and it isn't perfect.

In the perfect programmer office:

Who touched the thermostat?!
  • You are by yourself. Just you. When you have two programmers sharing a room, at least one of them will have a seasonal allergy at any point in time, and will be blowing his nose every five minutes.
  • People can see when you're in, and can knock on your door if they need to pop in and ask a question. But you also have a do not disturb sign for those hours that you're really in the zone.
  • Your team members are nearby, so you can ask them a quick question if you need to.
  • You got your fancy Aeron chair, your private AC thermostat, and an en-suite bathroom that nobody else uses. 
Now, with a distributed team, each working from home using a permanent Google hangout you get as close to that as humanly possible. 

Pirate hat effect is optional

It just requires a few tweaks.

Tweak #1

Everybody joins the hangout each morning, and stays on for the duration of the work day but with their microphone muted. This is crucial. Without it you're just listening to other people's typing noises and we're back to the horribleness that is an open space environment. When you want to say something, un-mute your mic and everybody else hears you.

Tweak #2 

Hide the hangout window when you really want to concentrate and don't want to see movement in you peripheral vision. In other words, you don't really have to be staring into each other's faces the entire day. But when you do need to say a word to someone, it takes just one second to switch over to the hangout window to see if they're there.

Tweak #3

Need to blow your nose for a second and don't want it broadcast around the globe? Turn off the camera for a moment. Same if you want to take a short break. Others will still be able to speak up and ask whether you're really there if they have something urgent to discuss. 

It's really as close as you can get to that ideal working environment. No real office environment is this flexible. It's like your teammates having adjacent offices with sound-proof glass walls that turn one-way opaque at the press of a button. You can see everyone, or hide them. You can be seen, and you can have your privacy. You can play music and not have to wear headphones for 9 hours. You don't even have to get up to walk over to your colleague's office when you need to talk.

And Google Hangout has all kinds of other cool features. Being free is one of them. Another one is being able to share a screen and collaborate on documents and chat. I guess other video conferencing solutions have similar features, but not many of them are as well made and still free.

Pro tip: if you can dedicate some old laptop just for hangouts, then do. It can sit beside your main screen and you can easily mute the whole thing with one click, turn it away if you want to... very flexible. It feels more like you're sitting alongside a coworker than actually video conferencing. Give it a shot.

The Downsides

Hangouts aren't perfect. They have a few quirks and missing features, but maybe Google will read this and fix them. Somebody please +1 this.

No PTT - Push To Talk. You know, like a Walkie-Talkie. Muting and un-muting can get tedious. Occasionally someone will forget to mute his mic and has to be asked to. Occasionally you'll forget you're muted and find yourself talking to the air for a few seconds. It's not a huge deal, but it would be great to have.

Google Hangouts time out after a while. I guess they weren't really designed to be used for hours and hours. After an hour or so a popup asks you whether you're really still hanging out or not, and if you don't answer it it'll close the hangout. Annoying. 

Setting up and shutting down the hangout is cumbersome. It's just too many clicks. You can't "save" a hangout and get back to it with one click. You have to invite people manually each time. What Google Hangout really needs is the concept of rooms, like chat systems have. Rooms could have well known links so anybody can join them without being invited. You could also be in more than one room, talking to a different group of people each time. You could have one-on-one rooms. Hangouts should copy IRC. IRC is awesome.

In Summary

If you're a distributed team, staying in touch can be challenging. Chat isn't enough. Calling people up on Skype isn't quite it, either. You can have a lot of the good things a real office environment gives you, without many of the annoyances. That's how we work at Gigantt, which, by the way, is perfect for distributed teams that collaborate on the same projects. 

Hey, what do you know, I managed to plug our product in our blog...

HubSpot, give me my marketing grade points now please!

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