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Some teams have to work with collaborators without face-to-face discussions. In our case all conversations are by email.

There is a problem with a this method: it's very difficult to keep developers engaged. They work on a project in teams of two, and all contact is by group email. They don't have physical contact and it decreases their motivation over time.

How can I keep the team members involved in their work and increase teamwork without using money or threats?

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    Please explain the background to this - is it a genuine situation that you find yourself in, and if so, why is email the only means of communicating with the developers? Are there no opportunities to use instant messenger, telephone, or even ad-hoc personal contact? – Iain9688 Nov 16 '14 at 18:07
  • I can only echo @Iain9688 comments. – Venture2099 Nov 17 '14 at 8:22
  • I don't work in a standard company but in a Junior-Enterprise. I have to manage projects with students working on it. It's not the same motivation than in a company ! I must be able communication frequency if I have a problem on a project. It is why we use emails and not other solutions. – nlassaux Nov 17 '14 at 8:40
  • Why can't you use Money? Is it that you can't use any financial rewards? What about the offer of a company paid celebratory dinner? (Theats are BTW, not encouraged by any motivational framework I have encountered. Though they are encouraged for certain other occasions) – Lyndon White Nov 22 '14 at 1:58
  • It is complicated for a Junior-Enterprise to motivate a student with money, because unless he doesn't had made anything we have to pay him... – nlassaux Nov 23 '14 at 16:54
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It is a poor workman who blames his tools.

The false premise underlying this question annoys me; I have rewritten this answer several times to try to take out the withering sarcasm and the ire, but I think that ultimately it is more honest and effective to admit that I am working hard to be respectful while I am annoyed.

I have worked on teams that rely heavily on email and I've never been demotivated by it. I've also worked on teams that rely heavily on physical presence, and I've found that to be soul deadening. Different people prefer different modes of communication; it is your job to recognize that and to select a communications path that is most effective.

1) It is your job to motivate the team using the communications mechanisms at your disposal. You choose that, and you need to own your choice. If you believe that email is the wrong choice, don't use it. On the other hand if there are management constraints/Organizational Operational Factors that constrain you to only email, then use email. But the tool isn't the problem, the deployment is. Concentrate on the job, not on factors that are outside your control.

2) There are multiple theories of motivation; none of the credible theories reference email. What does motivate your staff? Money? respect? Challenge? Flexibility? Autonomy? really excellent coffee? Each of these can be delivered by email; each of these can be delivered through some other communications mechanism. Failing to identify the factors that motivate/demotivate your employees is a failure.

3) If they say that they are demotivated by email, and if email is the only tool that is permitted, it is still your problem to solve. You need to (a) find ways to make the email motivational and (b) work with management to find alternatives. Perhaps you use SMS or Skype or Google circles or Facebook, or telepresence, or annual conferences. If they really find email demotivational, then I suggest that they find a new job outside the technology industry. There are many career fields that don't require email. many of them are lower paid and less respected, but part of that pay and respect is compensation for being professional and recognizing that it is our obligation to prioritize the job over personal preferences and to work as a team towards achieving the goal, even if it means that we sometimes have to bring our own motivation to the table to counter innate demotivational forces in the job.

There is a demographic in the community who want to blame email for all the world's problems; it is a simple answer and a popular answer, but like most simple, popular answers it isn't very useful at solving problems. I'd be willing to trade 100 emails a day for the rest of my life in exchange for not enduring another phone call or meeting where someone drones on about their vanity project and demonstrates desperate need for an interpersonal spam filter, or one of the phone calls where the clear agenda is to continue the phone call until everyone involved agrees out of sheer exhaustion. My point is not to vent my spleen here, my point is that different people respond differently to the same communications channel, and assuming that everyone responds the same way you do is far more demotivational than the channel could be; I'm not asserting that you're doing this, I don't have sufficient information. But it is common and there isn't enough information in your posting to exclude that possibility.

The problem is demotivated employees. Blaming email probably isn't a useful analytic framework. Keep trying alternative analytic frameworks until you find one that both describes the problem and presents a potential solution.

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    As a mail hater I am, I really liked your answer, Mark. Gives me some perspective. Specially because you break down between the problem and one (amongst a plethora) of other possible reasons. +1! – Tiago Cardoso Feb 20 at 11:29
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The agile manifesto states:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

This is not without reason. For small dislocated development teams I would use a free conferencing tool to schedule weekly meetings, like:

Project management tool

If that is not possible try to use a tool like Trello to maintain some sort of backlog and progress indicator. Trello supports notifications over e-mail automatically if you subscribe to a card, its possible to add users to cards to inform them that you require action. This will ensure all the communication is central, logged and visible to the whole team. Aslo read this blog post about using trello as a PM tool: http://blog.lingohub.com/industry-updates/2014/05/getting-the-most-ouf-trello-project-management/

I would try prevent the use of e-mail. To quote fogbugz:

Many development shops use email, spreadsheets, or sticky notes as ad hoc bug tracking tools. These have poor visibility, poor communicability, and poor accountability.

I think this also counts for new features or your product planning.

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Death by a thousand emails. Turn your autoresponder on telling the team members not to email you anymore.

Then get an Agile tracking tool like ScrumWorks, Rally, Jira, or VersionOne. Most of these offer a free basic version for smaller projects/team sizes.

Some of these apps also feature built in conversation features for team members to discuss stories and defects within the tool and without generating hundreds of email threads to track.

Skype or Google Hangouts are popular face to face tools.

Make it painful. Everytime you get an email, respond with a text message :)

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Email is definitely a hard way to manage developers and that is why more conversations are more preferred. However if you just want to do emailing, be sure to check in on them every so often and also let them know where they should be. Motivation changes but as manager you have to stay focused and have them realize if they are on track of where they are suppose to be.

Hopefully this helps.

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Emails are part of the few electronic means to communicate that are admissible in court. Many prefer tex messages that are not in the USA to my knowledge. A vast majority of people believe that emails are out dated; I would be very surprised if more than 10% of the work force in any kind of industry use email now a day to receive order or information. Twitter is the best loved device to receive a quick info on what to do at a precise moment; but I would be very surprised that a twit is admissible in court. Workers, especially managers used to hide behind emails : mainly not answering to look all day occupied : it is a manager well known trick. Email permit a manager to control the pace of a worker; it has good side but also pervert sides. I can be used for a disguised way to fire an employee.

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Check every team member's motivation triangle

motivation triangle
(source: hyperthot.com)

And, surely, at any cost switch the team communication from emails to daily Skype calls. You will be surprised by team motivation/performance increase.

Emails as a team communication:

  • Take huge time to write
  • Take huge time to read
  • Cause question-answer delays
  • Easily confuse meant vs understood
  • Usually produce new emails
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I think way of communication has small impact on morale or motivation. Main important things is what is communicated and how it is communicated.

This is my personal experience and sometime it create problem for me.

  1. I am working in team ( For single product there are three team) in that I am facing issue due to this. Like one team use Skype, other use Slack, other google hangout ( someother tool). Now every person added to the group but when working on something person has to look at many tools and notification that distract them and even sometime it affects me as a leader as I have to look at many place for information.

  2. Many people choose email as a method of approval or at least other aware of it. Like they send their plan for particular feature or story over email and discussion for same in same email thread. Many time this is quite useful in my case if I have track back who say what.

  3. In person is quite good and effective but at same time there should be a trust between all member. Also when someone say something it should accountable.Like many time during such meeting agree on something and after few days they ask for why something is being done that way or he/she forgot the stuff. Now this type of things happen many time it break trust and people need some short of approval so they choose email over other communication.

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