With the recent news, many companies currently find themselves in the real situation of a sudden transition to a remote staff for the first time. With the snap of a finger, your team members suddenly lack the proximity to be able to function in the same exact way. The unexpected shift to a remote development team can be extremely difficult to navigate, yet work must be done and deadlines still need to be met.
In this blog, we introduce tips, suggestions, and takeaways for Agile software development team members to successfully work remotely or distributed for the first time.
Changing Your Communication Mindset
Moving to a remote setting may be new for you and your team, but it is not new in the industry. That does not mean it is simple and easy and “follow these three steps and you are there.” Every team is different and unique, just as every person on the team is different and unique, and every project is…you guessed it…different and unique.
Moving into a remote work setting, whether on a permanent basis or a short-term basis, has many benefits and challenges, with no challenge bigger than that of communication, especially for an agile team.
If the entire team is moving to a remote setting, then every person will play a role to ensure that communication is established and maintained in the best ways possible. If members of the team have a tendency to pull away into the background and not participate, it is highly likely that it will occur even more so in a remote setting.
It is the role of the entire team, not one person, to make sure that communication is happening effectively. To that end, here are some thoughts and ideas on how that can most effectively take place.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from George Bernard Shaw:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
This is true in an ideal team room setting and it becomes even more true in a remote development team setting. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Tips For Productivity & Success
Most already know that there are some attractive benefits of working remotely.
- The time spent commuting has been removed. This can greatly impact a person’s attitude arriving and leaving an office. Not commuting is good for the environment and the personal budget!
- Time spent running a routine errand may be drastically reduced!
- No need to iron that shirt the night before or pack that lunch.
- No commute means setting the alarm back later. More rest, a clear head for the next day’s needs.
But, you also must recognize there are challenges too, or you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Particularly if your manager, Senior Manager, or Director is a micro-manager, this will be a very difficult adjustment for them. You’re transitioning from a relationship with your boss where he/she could physically see that you were performing work by simply looking out their office.
To ensure there is no doubt about your continued commitment to your team, I highly encourage you to be visible! I recommend any team member who is going remotely keep this in mind, especially in an organization that is not used to having a remote workforce. Here are some tips:
- Say good morning to your team and or manager
- Be overly diligent to communicate frequently and to provide task status… without being asked. If you are moving from one task to the next, drop your manager an IM to let them know ABC is wrapping up and you are picking up XYZ.
- If you are going to be offline for a period of time (15 minutes or longer) mark yourself off-line, then mark yourself back online when you return.
- If you are off for the day, or ½ day – make sure that is reflected on your calendar or IM status
- Schedule the day. If you have non-work activities, make sure your day has been planned. Keep your status updated, identify tasks that will be completed or worked on during the work hours.
Be Understanding Of The Change & Its Effects
Realize that communication is a huge challenge for any team and working remotely just removed a large communication component. The facial expression, body language, and even voice inflections have been removed from many communications. Keep that in mind when communicating and picking a mode for communicating.
Make an extra effort to be available to your team and engage with each person. For those team members who tend to not speak up during meetings, that quality will be even more prevalent when on a phone call or IM.
Foster Remote Development Team Engagement
On a remote development team specifically, ensuring that all members are participating in communication can be tough. Make it a point to get everyone engaged in discussions. Be more diligent on generating “small talk” to make sure people are opening up and engaging in dialog vs drawing back.
When speaking to the team as a group, use specifics whenever possible.
- Don’t ask generally “how does everyone feel” or does anyone have any questions? Instead, ask specific and individual questions. “Okay, on a scale of 1-10, Jodie, how do you feel”.
- “We are going around the room, starting with Paul, does that make sense, do you have any questions,” etc.
- Come up with a trivial icebreaker to kick off the meeting that everyone has to respond to. “Today’s kickoff question is… how many people have been on the moon?” and go around the room to make sure everyone throws out a guess.
Tip: As a thought exercise, carefully consider the work culture you have experienced when in the office. How do your co-workers generally communicate with one another? How are difficulties handles? How does your team function when someone needs help on a task? Envision how that might apply to a remote team. Then figure out ways to fill in any gaps!
Find A Location That Works Best
Try to find a suitable at-home environment. Kids, pets, desk ergonomics, and neighbors can all impact your ability to focus on work activities. In my experience, I have found that there needs to be a tangible, physical delineation between work and your personal life.
Tip: Create a standing desk from your kitchen counter. Alternate back and forth between sitting and standing to create a very positive work time experience.
A colleague of mine wrote this great post about how to create a home office in 24 hours, check it out.
As tempting as it might be, don’t leave Facebook, Twitter, personal email, and other social media tabs open. Create a schedule and check on those things during pre-set breaks time, then shut them down when you go back to work.
Agile As a Mindset for Remote Teams
Rather than a process or methodology, Agile should really be defined as a mindset. This applies to both geographically-unified teams and 100% remote teams. Keep in your mind the values and principles laid out in the Agile Manifesto:
- Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools
- Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation
- Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation
- Responding to Change Over Following a Plan
It could certainly be argued that the 4 principles of the Agile Manifesto have at their heart a deep need for communication. Agility relies heavily on face-to-face interaction. Unfortunately, that’s not a great thing when going to remote, but it can certainly be overcome.
Moving to a remote environment does not change or diminish any of the values at the heart of agile; but it does require that each individual and the team as a whole, work diligently to excel at communication. Members must work harder at engagement techniques and employ some best practices.
Use Technology to Facilitate Agile
There are such a number of technology tools out there that can help bridge the gap in geography, and they truly come in handy when it comes to Agile or Scrum team processes.
If your dev teams agree – use the video conferencing capabilities (Google and Zoom) with the camera’s on to get those non-verbal communication elements back. As much as possible, if you are using video conferencing, set the standard to have the camera on. Everyone will be ready and prepared and will know how to go on and off mute.
Tip: Some teams may prefer to not use the video. Come to a decision that works for everyone, like daily standups with cameras off, but bi-weekly demos and story grooming will have cameras on.
Many co-located agile teams meet for their daily standup around a storyboard full of sticky notes (stories and tasks) and physically move them from one stage to another. If physical storyboards are typically used by your team when on-site, think about how that will be maintained in a remote setting. There are a plethora of options here, which one would work better for your scrum team?
Tip: A physical board could still be used if that is your preference. Standups could be done virtually around a physical board using video, with someone managing the board while the team watches remotely.
Electronic storyboards can be adopted with full-featured platforms like Azure and Atlassian, or free versions like Trello. Story point voting can be done via one of the many online tools available for Fibonacci voting, or use a chat window that is displaying to the full team.
Just like in person, Scrum Masters must actively work to get everyone included in the conversations.
Tip: If someone recommends a solution, poll the other team members to get consensus. Simply asking if everyone agrees may result in silence without interaction vs. specifically asking for individual opinions.
If a simple set of practices would make every remote development team an overwhelming success then this information would be useless. However, becoming a high-performing remote working team relies on many of the principles that becoming a high-performing co-located team entails: open and honest communication, trial and error, dedication and a desire to be the best team possible.
This may be a new experience for you and your teams, but remember other companies have been utilizing various configurations of remote work for a long time.
As our clients are located anywhere from across the globe to across the nation, Keyhole consultants have a vast amount of experience leading teams while working remotely. It is with this experience that we can confidently say the following:
Working as a remote/distributed development team may look and feel different, but with time, patience, and diligent communication, it can be very successful.