Making a small multi-site organisation work

Running a small business is very challenging, as anyone working in one knows. Without enough people to form a department for each business function, everyone has to take responsibility for anything that requires attention. Under these circumstances, where knowledge is highly distributed within the business, good communication is paramount.

Running a small multi-site business significantly adds to the challenge. Issues that would otherwise be solved by a quick question put to someone else in the room, now involve a phone call or email or similar.

These are not rich forms of communication: The small, subtle hints conveyed by body language and tone of voice that significantly add to the quality of communication are watered down or lost completely. These poorer forms of communication also add a significant overhead for several reasons. The communication often needs to be padded with pleasantries.

These are vital in order to maintain the relationships between staff, and in a multi-site environment they often don't get the chance to engage this way before getting involved in their work. Inevitably, a lot of phone calls will interrupt a task that has nothing to do the nature of the call. This takes the call recipient out of "flow" and subsequently forces them to spend time reconnecting with what they were doing.

Poorer communication channels make conveying information more time consuming and less precise. When you're juggling half a dozen tasks you really don't want to have to put up with this. What's the solution?

At Ecobee, we are a 4 person web development co-operative split over two sites. Two of our staff are based in Burford near Oxford, and two at OpenSpace in Manchester.

Our approach is twofold:

  1. Use as many different kinds of communication channel as possible in order to maximise the chance of getting the "best fit" in different circumstances.
  2. Minimise direct, time-consuming, person-to-person communication by automating as much as possible.

 

The communication channels we use are:

  • IM (instant messaging)
  • VOIP (Voice over internet protocol) which allows us to hold conference calls and is free
  • email
  • Open Atrium, our project management system.

The VOIP and IM tools that we use would not be our first choice, as they are proprietary rather than freely licensed, but they get the job done. We keep a group IM chat open on all our computers so that we can exchange information while we continue working, resorting to a VOIP call when something too tricky or time consuming for IM needs to be discussed.

In addition we have a structured, full-company conference call once a week. This helps to us stay on track with our high level goals and can also mop up hanging issues that might not have justified a call on their own.

The project management system is vital. It allows tasks to be passed between people easily (and without interrupting anyone) and allows everyone to see what needs to be done. It's what we use to try and make it as easy as possible to find information and to inform our workmates.

These approaches help us enormously and could be further refined. I recently went to a seminar on Kanban, an aid to task management that has been used across organisations from car manufacturing to Accident and Emergency to software development.

Inspired by that, I'd now like to see much better visualisation of the state of different tasks in our project management system:

  • Which tasks are being actively worked on?
  • Which tasks can I take over without disrupting anyone's work?
  • Which tasks are being blocked by something with no obvious person to pass responsibility on to?

Inevitably we'll continue to look for ways to improve our communication and automate as much as possible. By keeping these two objectives in mind we'll continue to reduce the difficulties inherent in operating our multi-site business and increase our effectiveness.

 

Justin Hellings is a member of two worker co-operatives:

Ecobee are a website development company and Drupal consultants.

3 Mules are end-to-end web strategists for co-operatives.