To manage group diversity, you need group standards. Standards are rules of the road for how different group members interact with one another. Standardization means to create and establish such rules. It does not mean that everyone agrees with one another all the time and that different groups members cannot think, act, and feel differently from one another. Standards are not about removing differences. Standards are for managing differences in a structured way, so both group and individual needs are respected. Setting the right standards for a group is as much an art as a science. The following ideas should not be considered a fixed recipe for every group situation. Rather, these are just a few suggestions for handling issues that experience has shown often arise in IT workgroups.
How and when will the group meet?
When students debrief about their IT project groups at the end of a term, they almost always wish the group had set better ground rules about how often to meet. Setting some sort of schedule is a good idea. For most groups, meeting once a week or at most twice a week is enough. Individual team members may want or need to communicate more frequently than that, but usually a weekly whole group meeting is helpful for keeping the group on track. In today’s world, job shifts and class schedules are all over the place, so finding a convenient time when everyone can meet is a challenge. For student work groups, weekend meetings times often are best. Yes, this cuts into family and personal time. But school on top of work is a balancing act in the best of situations. Realistically, to qualify as an IT professional, you need to experience IT work group meetings. So consider what you are really trying to accomplish with your IT studies and set your priorities – and your personal schedule – accordingly.
Face-to-face or online?
In the post-COVID IT world, this is the question that every company is trying to figure out. One theory is that face-to-face is needed for personal bonding, for creativity, for innovation, or for showing commitment to the company and its projects. Another theory is that commuting to a job site is a waste of time and a waste of gas (or bus fare) and work from home turns out to be the most productive approach for the jobs that really need doing. We will not settling that debate here! Your school experience with work groups (both face-to-face and online) will help you form an opinion about how you, personally, like to work and what sorts of employer policies you would be willing to go along with. Maybe one way to handle this is “both and” rather than “either or”. Perhaps your team could call one face-to-face meeting to get organized and launch the project. Then maybe weekly online check-ins after that. Another occasion calling for face-to-face might be to rehearse for a big team presentation or to crash the deadline on a critical project submission. Again, these are just ideas. You need to experiment and find out what works for you.
Even if your group meets face-to-face as often as weekly, there usually will also remain a need for more specific types of communication between the team meetings. For IT projects, that type of communication will almost always involve IT. But what technology? Which platform? We face an embarrassment of potential answers to these questions. Text, email, IM, Zoom, Teams, Discord, Slack – they all have their fans. Really, any of them can work. But as a team, you will be better off finding a medium that all team members can access or better yet, are already familiar with. Do not underestimate the problems caused by technical diversity on the client side! In today’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) world, some team members will be on MacOS, others on Arch Linux (or some other distro), still others on Windows version whatever. Whichever communication channel your team selects is almost guaranteed to cause headaches on the client for one or more of your team members. (And someone on your team is going to try doing technical communications on a Chromebook or on a smart phone while riding a bicycle or running on a treadmill … good luck with all that!) Ten or fifteen years ago, companies tried to avoid all these platform diversity headaches by forcing all employees to use a standard laptop configured and checked out by IT services. Not sure if those were the good old days, but for better or worse those days are long over now. There is no magic formula for addressing the fact that one or more of your team members is likely to break your preferred team communication process due to some sort of client-side incompatibility. Just go into these questions with eyes wide open and do not assume everyone can and will collaborate effectively through any given communications channel. Check it out. Prove it. Make changes if you need to. Getting collaboration right takes work, but if you skip this step, everything else on the project will be ten times harder than it should have been.
The chances of everyone on your team having precisely the same work ethic are almost zero. In the eyes of some of your team members, some other team member will be seen as slacking off, not pulling any weight, or gone AWOL entirely. This may well be the case. So how will your team handle the question of one or more non-performing members? It’s best to address this possibility up front. Set some sort of contract or expectation early in the process for how much work needs to get checked in, how often it gets checked in, and how the team will respond when the work does not get checked in as expected. The same applies for team meetings. Are absences going to be a problem? Should team members communicate the need for absences in advance? Can one person just update another who cannot be there? Whatever your system is, you will be better off if you have a system. But the process of figuring out the system, let alone getting everyone to buy into it or on any level respect it, is a challenge that calls for its own strategy. The following section addresses some of the processes groups typically need to undergo before arriving at a system and a set of expectations the group members can all live with.