We share a few tips you can do immediately to help your newly remote agile team maintain their connection and productivity.
Current global circumstances have caused most businesses to move towards remote work to protect their employees and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Yet many are unaware of the challenges and solutions team members will encounter when going fully remote for the first time.
Many teams may not have readily available technology nor feel prepared to work differently. Others may have the technology but don’t know how to get started or how to leverage it effectively.
Ultimately, to enable remote teams to function and deliver properly, we should remind them of the importance of the basic agile-quality attributes of transparency, accountability and collaboration. The foundation of delivery requires teams to practice these three quality attributes.
For this article, we will focus on tactical actions that you can take today to enable your remote teams to work tomorrow.
Using Electronic Agile Boards
Agile is big on promoting transparency. But, it’s not just for stakeholders. Transparency starts within the team and its team members. For teams used to working with big, physical boards and note cards, this change can be a radical shift.
Remind your team of the adage, “Work doesn’t exist unless it’s visible to the team.” When workers move to remote, their work can become opaque because it’s hard to see what other team members are doing at home. One of the first things your teams need to do to continue with this level of transparency is to move their work to an electronic agile board. Some great free to low-cost tools to consider are Trello, Microsoft Planner, and Jira.
Many companies can access one of these or something similar, but if your team does not usually work with electronic agile boards, they may struggle initially. Physical boards enable face-to-face conversations, easy visualization, and are intuitive to use. The challenge with moving from physical to electronic agile boards is that you can easily reconfigure physical boards, something new agile teams do quite often. Electronic agile boards are not as easily reconfigurable.
Another challenge with electronic agile boards is that it’s harder to see massive backlogs. A way to overcome this is during key ceremonies (such as daily stand up or refinement), tailor your view to only pertinent items to ensure things are visible at a glance. Also, avoid overly cluttered views that induce eyestrain.
Some suggested views include:
- Current sprint backlog [team view]
- Current sprint in progress [team view]
- My assigned items [member view]
- Backlog refinement [team view]
Avoid Invisible Work
Another challenge teams face– driving transparency of otherwise invisible work. Invisible work is work that teams typically do without creating a card. Especially in a remote environment, it is vitally important to drive transparency of work.
Therefore, if someone is working on something, there must be a card. Making all work visible will help instill confidence and gain a shared understanding of what the team is working on. If you’re new to remote work, be aware that you will often find the team works on way more invisible work than you thought. This is good opportunity to remind the team how important it is to limit their work in progress. To borrow a phrase from Sterling Mortensen, this focus will enable them to “stop starting and start finishing work.” The work hasn’t changed, but the visibility has.
As you and your team transition into this new style of transparency, be patient, and consider the changing nature of your team’s dynamic when people work remotely. It will take some time for everyone to gain their footing.
Shifting to remote work will be a difficult transition for many businesses. It is essential to promote accountability. Accountability comes in the form of setting, managing, and communicating expectations.
For example, Scrum foresees clear accountability for each Scrum role:
- The Development Team is accountable for creating releasable stories or delivery.
- The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the work.
- The Scrum Master is accountable for the understanding and application of Scrum.
They separated the accountabilities, yet they needed all of them.
When going remote, changes will disrupt the normal modes of accountability. The development team may have slow VPN connections impacting their ability to merge changes or build code. Product owners may experience less than ideal dialog around the value of stories. Scrum masters will experience a whole host of new communication issues.
When teams first go remote, the first thing we typically see is a daily stand-up meeting devolving into a simplistic status meeting. It is important to avoid a de-evolution of agile progress. Going back to our roots, we must ask ourselves:
- What value did we deliver yesterday?
- What are we working on today?
- Who would like to pair or discuss this item?
- What challenge am I having?
Encourage your team members to participate and speak up. Don’t let assumptions or implicit ownership trip up the team or expectations. If someone claims ownership, relay this information back to the group with that person verbally agreeing to the group they hold the responsibility.
To that end, it’s important to not only set ownership expectations but timeline expectations for remote teams. If someone says they’re going to work on a story, ask when they think they’ll finish. Any work not completed in that timeframe should result in something the team can help with. Encourage factual, open, and honest communication that enables trust-based, not fear-based behaviors – more so than you would during an in-person meeting.
Collaborating from a distance is a challenge. Collaboration starts with communication, but it is usually the first thing to drop with newly remote teams. In an office, most interactions occur via face-to-face conversations, email or chats. With remote teams, you must ensure the free flow of accurate information by fostering a communicative culture by using the right tools and practicing strong collaboration skills.
When it comes to best practices, it is important you explicitly explain how your teams should communicate. Remove the ambiguity in workplace communication by providing written guidelines that outline what kind of messages they should send through which mediums. Also, relay how you expect team members to interact with each other.
We recommend the following practices for effective remote communication:
- Use video calls for meetings, when possible. This means of communication encourages people to pay attention and avoid distractions. This practice will feel odd for newly remote teams, and you might feel like you’re all giving up some privacy. Tools like Microsoft Teams have a background blur feature that participants can leverage. But above all else, as leaders, it’s crucial to instill confidence in your team that no one cares if you’re in your basement, garage, bedroom, nor does anyone care what the state of your space looks like. You may need to encourage video usage to get people past their office space self-confidence concerns. What’s vital is that people leverage the richest communication medium available for remote teams. Team members must also understand that working from home means nosey dogs, cats, children, and sometimes spouses. That’s life. But as a team, you can promote psychological safety for remote meetings.
- Utilize screen sharing. It’s not often there’s a meeting that cannot benefit from screen sharing. For regular meetings, tools like Microsoft Teams is a huge asset. For other tasks, we have to look to other tools. For example, for developers’ tools like Visual Studio Live Code Share is vital for pairing and peer reviews.
- Provide team members a way to communicate their presence at their computers. Most chat programs include a status function. If you don’t have access to that, consider creating a wiki page or an excel document where people can edit their status. Ask people to be explicit about their status, too. For example, “I’m in a meeting from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.” This practice sets expectations, which eases the feeling of communication blackholes. If communication blackholes occur, rush to curiosity before rushing to judgment as your team member may be in a state of deep work, making great progress on an item.
- Develop working agreements for your teams to set service level agreements (SLAs) for various communication mediums that include the type of medium and response times. For example, we set email expectations at 24 hours, chats at 2 hours, and text messages within 15 minutes. This lets everyone know when they can expect a response and how to get more immediate responses if needed. Teams should also develop working agreements on what type of communication medium they will use for different needs. For example, story status change notifications are best suited to email. However, build status notifications are best via chat or text. Knowing where to communicate or find information will alleviate team headaches down the road. Our recommendations include:
- Build notifications should be in chat
- Story dialog needs to be in threaded conversations on the electronic story or linked to a wiki page
- Meeting summaries should be in Microsoft Word documents on a shared drive
- Code review notes should be on pull requests and more
Centric Consulting has worked via remote teams for over 20 years. Remote work is second nature to us, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy journey. And, we’ve learned many lessons on how to operate teams with remote workers successfully. I hope as your organization moves towards remote agile teams, these steps provide you with a starting point for success.
Best practices for effective remote communication and collaboration:
- Move to electronic boards.
- Ensure all meetings are video or screen share.
- Everyone must vocalize their expectations of others.
- Set communication medium definitions and associated response time in service level agreements.
- Everyone must be responsible for setting communication expectations.
Your guide to navigate what’s next.
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