Working Successfully in Agile with Remote Team Members

This article is a companion piece to Distributed PI Planning with SAFe.

COVID-19 has created an extreme situation where most employees are required to work from a different location, in many cases from home. For some organizations this global event has significantly altered the preconception that Agile teams must be physically located in an office and it has already demonstrated that employees can be highly productive even in a remote setting.

Many industry leaders are now predicting that a ‘new normal’ will emerge once this crisis subsides. This will likely involve some organizations reducing office space, thereby lowering the second largest corporate expense (after labor) and creating a positive impact on the environment by putting fewer cars on the road for the daily commute to work. If this is to become the new reality then it is important to capture the learnings and best practices from the extreme situation faced today in order to create a model for the future where a much higher percentage of the workforce includes remote workers. In addition, we all have to navigate through the current period and hopefully maintain a level of productivity and quality that helps our employers emerge on the other side with innovative new business solutions that will carry them into an increasingly digital future.

Overview

Agile teams emphasize the benefits of face-to-face communication alongside daily collaboration [1]. It is a fundamental tenet of agility. However, experience has shown that Agile teams can still be successful and can achieve high-performance even when some (or all) team members are not working in the same physical space. (Ed. It is worth noting that there is nothing in the Scrum Guide that requires a team to be collocated [2]).

Regardless of whether the teams are in person or remote, recognized Agile practices such as gaining commitment to a set of goals during Iteration planning, using the Daily Stand-up to ensure alignment, and delivering stories throughout the iterations, still apply. While remote teams can still commit to a quintessentially Agile way of working, some differences need to be taken into account. In the rest of this article, we’ll provide some of our experiences, as well as other success patterns and recommendations that have been shared by the SAFe community, for how to stay agile while working remote.

The following four topics are discussed:

    1. Accommodating Time Zone Differences: Multiple time zones create unique challenges that require careful consideration.
    2. Creating an Effective Working Environment: Ensuring that team members have the requisite infrastructure and technology to support remote working.
    3. Supporting Team Collaboration: Focused activities to facilitate team building and support team interactions.
    4. Facilitating Effective Online Meetings: Tips and techniques that can be applied to events during iteration execution.

 

1. Accommodating Time Zone Differences

When we consider the impact of working remotely, we often focus on geographic distribution. Experience, however, tells us that managing multiple time zones presents the greater challenge. The negative impact that time zones can have on team dynamics should not be understated. The first four steps on the journey to high performance, described in the Tuckman model, (Figure 1), continue for as long as it takes the team to get to ‘know each other’ and understand how to work well together – building on each other’s strengths. Working across multiple time zones can reduce the amount of ‘face time’ available for the team and consequently the stages of forming, storming, norming and performing need more time.

Figure 1 Tuckman’s stages of team dynamics [3]

Challenge #1: Individuals Working Alone

In some teams, there may be an individual working alone in a specific time zone. This will mean that there will be periods each day when individuals are working in complete isolation from the rest of the team (and potentially from most of the organization). Working on your own for long periods of time can assist mental flow and reduce multiplexing, but it also affects the individual’s ability to integrate with the team and reduces opportunities for collaboration. This situation should be avoided, or at least reduced, as far as is possible.

One recommendation is to see whether the team can adjust their working hours to increase the overlap times and opportunities for collaboration. These working hours could be periodically shifted to ensure no one location experiences a difficult work-life balance for an extended period of time.


SAFe Tip: If one team member is working alone in a time zone, find out whether there are members from other teams in the same time zone. Look for opportunities to restructure or perhaps create a community of practice in that time zone to bring more people together.


Challenge #2: Blocked Work

The second challenge, is that there may be substantial times of the day where a small number of team members will be working without access to key stakeholders, often including the Product Owner and Scrum Master on their own team. This creates the possibility they may become blocked on their work.

One approach is to use the daily stand-up to check whether remote team members have access to all the information and resources they need to effectively work the following day. If this is not the case the Scrum Master can help support them in resolving this. Creating, dedicated, planned interaction time for Agile teams is something that we have had success with here at Scaled Agile since a significant portion of our workforce is remote. Time is allocated on the calendar each iteration for ‘team syncs’. Topics are backlogged ahead of the meeting and it provides an opportunity for the team to resolve any issues or get feedback on work in process.


SAFe Tip: The time zones of the Product Owner and Scrum Master are important, and a relatively central time zone will serve them both well. The Product Owner will benefit from cross over time with the wider Product Management community and the Scrum Master will need to have significant cross over time with as many of the other teams as possible.


Challenge #3: Working Extended Hours

Another challenge with multiple time zones is that individuals who start their day earlier than the others will often continue working well past the end of their day as they strive to spend as much time with the team and avoid missing out on anything critical. Although a worthy demonstration of commitment, this is not sustainable long term. Eventually people start to burn out and ultimately the quality of the product, along with their own health and well-being, will suffer. A similar burden will occur in reverse for team members who are compelled to start their day in the middle of the night and work through to the end of the work day in a later time zone.

It is important for the team to explicitly state, agree to, and respect the working hours of each team member. Any key team meetings, such as the iteration events, should be scheduled at a time of day that does not fall outside these core working hours, or at the very least the timing is alternated so no one team member is continually disadvantaged.


SAFe Tip: Create a core window of the workday to be used for trans-time zone meetings. Those will be prioritized in that window over all other work requirements. Meetings (standing and ad hoc) and other activities that do not require trans-time zone participants should move outside of the core window to ensure maximum open slots.


 

2. Creating an Effective Working Environment

Principle 5 of the Agile Manifesto states: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done [1]. For remote team members, ‘environment’ covers everything from the technical and physical infrastructure, the tooling they have available as well as access to appropriate support. The following recommendations can act as a checklist to ensure this is in place.

Infrastructure

The organization must ensure that all individuals have the necessary infrastructure which typically includes, but is not limited to:

  • High bandwidth connection for audio and video communication.
  • Adequate computer hardware including webcams and headsets.
  • Out-of-hours technical support, covering all required time zones.
  • Access to files via a remote accessible storage solution.
  • Virtual breakout rooms (if working from a remote office location) with pre-configured audio and video conferencing.

Although these considerations are fairly obvious and generally manageable when remote team members are working from an office location, organizations need to pay attention to how they can provide these accommodations when an employee is working from home. This should also include support for providing reimbursement or direct billing for an adequate broadband connection if obtaining a higher quality connection requires an extraordinary expense (for instance in remote geographical locations where affordable broadband is not available). A poor connection will limit not only their ability to communicate, and impact the experience of online meetings for the entire team, but also make the process of accessing and downloading files much slower.

Tooling

Organizations use a variety of tooling in line with their requirements, vendor preferences and security needs. Regardless of the specific tools chosen, there are six critical categories that provide support to Agile teams with remote team members:

Tooling

Considerations

Audio/Video Conferencing The first and most important tool is audio/video conferencing that is quick and easy to access, with support for both on demand and planned interactions.
Instant Messaging Use an appropriate instant messaging tool that supports a more immediate communication pattern than email. The chosen tool should also support asynchronous information where team members can post questions ready for those who are currently offline to process when they come into the office, as well as maintaining a record of these conversations.

The ability to create ‘channels’ and ‘threads’ on specific topics enhances collaboration further. Some considerations on how team members should mark themselves as ‘busy’ will ensure this does not become a distraction to the job of getting work done.

Structured Information Remote team members also require the alignment provided by more structured sources of information. Often this is a provided by a Wiki or intranet site where, for example, team working agreements may live alongside a team definition of done.
Agile Lifecycle Management Agile Lifecycle Management tooling provides information relating to the work the team is doing. Team boards provide visibility on the current iteration, alongside PI Objectives and a program board that supports program execution.
Collaboration Tools Teams also need to be able to collaborate in more organic ways, much like they would using stickies and flipcharts if they were collocated. Collaboration tools often mimic these tangible physical counterparts and let the teams quickly and interactively engage in retrospectives, brainstorming, innovation activities and more.

 

3. Supporting Team Collaboration

As previously mentioned, team formation can take longer when the team includes remote team members, and some intentional efforts can compensate this as well as support improved team collaboration. This section includes some recommendations to assist with this.

Team Forming

It is highly encouraged that when Agile teams are formed or when new members are added, to make time for dedicated team formation activities. Ideally this is done in person if there are opportunities for remote members to gather periodically, such as for PI Planning. Regardless, this time for team building should be repeated at regular intervals to reinforce the benefits of spending time together.

Recommended activities during this time might include:

  • Creating a team name and defining a team vision.
  • Agreeing or reviewing the times and agendas for the iteration events.
  • Creating folders for online files and configuring tooling to support team processes.
  • Defining working agreements and protocols for remote working.
  • Collaborating on a team definition of done.
  • Facilitating a retrospective to focus on a specific topic.
  • Having some fun together.

SAFe Tip: If the organization regularly collocates for PI Planning, add an additional day after the event for the team to meet in person, and continue the ongoing process of team formation alongside maturing their remote working practices.


Keeping Remote Team Members Informed

One additional consideration is how to keep remote team members informed on decisions being made across the wider organization. It seems as if there can never be too much communication about the state of the business and what matters most. Effort should be made during appropriate team events such as daily stand-ups or Iteration Planning, to provide these updates. One option that we have observed working well is to extend the System Demo to also include an all-hands element which provides an update from organizational operations. Another approach is to create a ‘buddy system’ where someone in the main location takes responsibility for updating remote team members on things they may have missed. This might be done on a rotational basis.

Working Agreements

Working agreements support the intended behaviors of distributed Agile teams. They are defined by the team based on how they want themselves to be held accountable and they support the Scrum Master in facilitating these intended behaviors. (Exemplar working agreements will be discussed further in the sections below.)

Once defined, these working agreements should be captured and made easily accessible. The Scrum Master might also choose to bring them to the attention of the team from time to time if it is felt that the team behaviors are drifting from the agreements they previously set or simply highlight them as a reminder of what the team identities as important. Additionally, it is important for the team to continuously refine these working agreements. One recommendation is to periodically use the iteration retrospectives as a forum for discussing which working agreements are working well, which might need to be adjusted and what new working agreements might be required.

Reserving Social Time

It is important to ensure that the time that the team spend together is not only for work related activities. There should also be opportunities to get together and discuss non-work-related issues or partake in some online activities such as a quiz or interactive game – this also positively supports team formation. Be mindful however when designing some more ‘fun’ interactions for the team. Everyone’s idea of fun is different, and people respond differently to these activities. Team members should not be made to feel uncomfortable or forced to participate if they do not want to. Getting the team to collectively suggest activities will help avoid this situation.

For more regular interactions, we have had some success with virtual coffee mornings and virtual lunches. Consider also including some more relaxed conversation time built into the agenda of longer meetings, particularly those that go on for several hours.

Pair Work

Pairing has an important role to play. As a practice that supports built in quality, pairing ensures that all work has a second pair of eyes on it, identifying opportunities for improvements and recognizing potential errors and defects. It also ensures that team members spend time working together. This supports knowledge sharing, skills development and drives collaboration. It also prevents the isolation effect experienced by remote team members, highlighted previously.


SAFe Tip: And while this is indeed Agile, ‘design’ is not a dirty word. Some teams have found that instituting informal design reviews about new work helps bond the team, gains buy in and respect, and most importantly creates better designs.


 

4. Facilitating Effective Online Meetings

The discussions above have been about creating the right conditions to support remote working. This final section outlines practical recommendations that can be applied to meetings and events throughout the iteration when conducted online.

Meeting Preparation

Preparation is the key to successful online meetings. Some considerations:

  • Define and publicize the available timebox and the discussion items that will be covered.
  • Ensure any tools or documents the team plans to use are configured and available.
  • Identify pre-work that could be sent out ahead of the meeting to align the team and save time in the meeting itself.
  • Make sure instructions are clear and that activities are adapted for remote participation, as necessary. The use of interactive collaboration tools is important here.
  • Consider whether the meeting requires additional facilitation. (Having someone separate from the conversations taking place to monitor incoming messages and watch for attendees who are raising questions can be especially useful).

SAFe Tip: Agile teams have often used ‘templates’ to support idea generation and provide structure in the Iteration Retrospective. Similar approaches can be applied to all online meetings. A template, created in an online collaboration tool, will break the meeting down into a series of bite-size steps, provide the necessary prompts along the way and help the team navigate towards the intended outcomes.


Finally, it is worth remembering that working online for long periods of time can be extremely tiring and regular breaks are recommended. When scheduling meetings plan them to finish 5 minutes before the end of the hour, or before the half hour, to build in time for much needed breaks. (Some online meeting tools now have this feature-built in.)

Meeting Execution

Below are some tips and techniques for running effective online meetings:

  • Avoid repetition: Maintaining engagement is important and repetition makes this more difficult. As an example, mix-up the order for speaking in the daily stand-up. One technique is to ask the person who last spoke to select the person who will speak next.
  • Manage timeboxes: Communicating online takes longer than in person and as such timeboxes must be actively managed. Use a timer, visible to all participants, and ensure conversations do not drift off topic. Participants should also be mindful of taking too much of the airtime.
  • Visualize information: Share any sources of information that team members are referring to during the meeting. As an example, make sure that everyone references the issue number on the team board or row in the spreadsheet as they are talking, so others who are online can follow along.
  • Asking questions: Asking questions in online meetings is more challenging as it is harder to interject and communication lags can make this problem worse. The consequence is that participants listen to reply rather than listening to understand. Determine a best practice for asking questions. Consider posting them in the instant messaging tool or meeting chat and then the person speaking can choose whether to respond immediately or come back to it later at a more appropriate time.
  • Capturing notes: If notes need to be taken or actions captured, do this in an online document. Attempts at pointing a webcam towards a flipchart, or circulating photos of whiteboards, for example, tend to create a poor experience for remote team members.
  • Update information in real time: Updating sources of information immediately means that none of the remote team members will be blocked waiting for this to be completed after the meeting. This applies equally to things such as files that need to be shared or emails waiting to be forwarded, for example.

SAFe Tip: When only some of the team are remote then often it works best for everyone to work in a remote capacity, at least on occasion, by joining a common audio/conference line. This avoids individuals being the only ones to ‘dial into a meeting’, with everyone else present in the room, and provides empathy and a common experience for all.


Summary

Working in remote Agile teams can often present challenges that need to be overcome. But let’s face it, many of our teams were at least partially remote to begin with and we can build and iterate on those known patterns. Through their commitment to agility, teaming and relentless improvement, Agile teams are well positioned to adapt.

This article summarizes some of the adaptations that have emerged from our experiences of remote working, and those shared with us by the community. But this is by no means a definitive list and each team will need to make a commitment to find the approach that works best for them. What is clear is that these challenges can be overcome, and remote working does not prevent Agile teams from reaching high levels of performance.


[1] Manifesto for Agile Software Development. http://agilemanifesto.org/

[2] The Scrum Guide. https://www.scrumguides.org/docs/scrumguide/v2017/2017-Scrum-Guide-US.pdf

[3] Tuckman’s Stages of Team Dynamics (1977)

  

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