Agile for Remote Teams
Remote work has gained significant popularity in recent decades. However, because the Agile methodology traditionally emphasizes face-to-face interactions, the possibility of remote work may raise a red flag. Still, it’s possible to combine Agile with remote work. Team success will depend on having the right processes and tools in place.
Today, remote work is quickly becoming the new normal and provides an indicator of the future workplace. Remote workers are not co-located in a traditional office environment, but rather work from home, in co-working spaces, or at cafes, as well as across time zones and countries, each with their own cultural expectations. As team members move further away from each other, they no longer share in-person experiences, so they lose some communication richness.
The primary goal of Agile methodology is to iteratively build projects, gathering immediate feedback at each stage to get more done with fewer formalities. Agile helps team members remain aware of everyone's tasks, progress, strengths, and output, and the frequent communication results in better team performance and an improved final product.
According to CollabNet VersionOne's State of Agile Report, "about 97% of software companies are practicing Agile software development methods." With that statistic in mind, Agile software development depends on succinct and continual collaboration — this can be difficult with a remote team. Below are ways to overcome difficulties:
- Develop and Follow Standards and Working Agreements: From the get-go, remote Agile teams must develop trust, open communication, and discipline to guide their self-organization. Work agreements define rules on how team members interact with one another to plan, set, and achieve common goals. The agreement ensures that Agile team members function well together and continually enhance their processes.
- Build a Healthy Development Culture with Accountability: Collaboration and accountability can be difficult when everyone works remotely. In-person Agile teams use daily stand-up meetings to track accountability, but this isn't an option for remote teams. That said, remote Agile teams work around this challenge by incorporating tools, such as messaging and remote meeting applications, to support communication between team members.
- Operate as a Remote-First Team: A remote-first team is one in which everyone works in a separate location and all communication occurs online. From day one, make sure you define processes that are relevant to remote teams. Leverage cloud services to automate build and deployment processes from end to end. Finally, ensure that collaboration is meaningful and accessible for later reference.
- Clearly Define Collaborative Communication Channels: Agile prioritizes fluent, effective team communication in order to build products that meet clients' needs and expectations. By using Agile methodologies, companies encourage teams to replace traditional and formal communication processes with casual and direct forms — this allows the client and development teams to work more closely together from a place of shared understanding. Backchannel communication, in which teams allow background conversation to take place during meetings, is part of this approach to collaboration. Overall, frequent communication results in better development team performance and, therefore, a better final product.
- Work as a Team: Working together as a team is critical in remote Agile projects. Teamwork includes planning and expediently resolving issues together. Planning takes place through web meetings that define each sprint, which is a small, iterative task that the team executes en route to the final project or product. Teams share progress and discuss issues in daily scrum and post-scrum meetings, often using scrum boards. Scrums are 15-minute time-boxed events where development teams synchronize their activities and create a plan for the next 24 hours.
- Focus on Continuous Quality Improvement: Continuous improvement is a methodology that ensures processes, methods, and practices are as efficient and effective as possible throughout the life of a project. The goal is to continually make iterative improvements to achieve specific goals, such as shortening timeframes, improving communications, and resolving issues.
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Tips for Working Remotely on an Agile Team
Remote work has become a lifestyle for many Agile teams. In this section, experts from the software and consulting industries weigh in on how to help remote Agile teams work better together.
- Deploy Team-Style Communication: "The most important thing to consider is communication. Traditionally, Agile prioritizes face-to-face communication and collaboration, but a distributed team does not really support this model,” says David Russell, Director of Quality Assurance at Spirion. “When a team transitions to completely remote or has remote members, it is essential to avoid siloed, one-on-one emails or chats, and to create an environment for open communication using [online] tools. These [tools] will create open, chatroom-style conversations that mirror the workplace."
- Call Colleagues: "While remote Agile teams have many technologies and tools at their disposal, they still need to focus on the soft, interpersonal, and team skills to be effective,” says Alan Zucker, PMP, PMI-ACP, and Founding Principal at Project Management Essentials. “When people are working together in a single location, a large amount of information is shared informally through the back and forth of people solving a problem. In a virtual environment, we need to make that extra effort to ‘call’ colleagues to have that same conversation."
- Repeat Important Information: Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, says, "It’s easy to miss important things when [teams are] distributed … Everyone needs to be cognizant of the lack of clues when communicating. That means that information must be delivered multiple times, but checks need to be put in place to ensure that everyone has heard it. This overcommunication and feedback loop approach can annoy teammates, so it is important that everyone, not just management, understands the purpose of overcommunication.”
- Encourage Transparency: “By making things transparent, you ensure that the unknown is visible. In a distributed Scrum team, that requires extra attention and effort,” says West. “For example, consistent Jira updates, documentation, regularly scheduled demonstrations, and updated schedules are necessary to keep all team members informed.”
- Apply Facilitation Techniques: Furthermore, West says, “It is essential to draw on structural approaches for communication and collaboration. Techniques, such as Liberating Structures [which facilitates a balance between tightly structured and looser brainstorming sessions], help teams bring everyone into the dialogue, including members of the team that feel uncomfortable on conference calls.”
- Make Time for Fun: “Continuous video calls, tight deadlines, and the stress of outside distractions can make for a challenging work environment,” says West. “In a co-located team, you rely on others to provide support. In a distributed team environment, it is much harder to ask for help or even relax with teammates. Find time to add things like virtual happy hours or team-building exercises to break up the stress and provide an outlet to chat without a meeting agenda and defined outcome.”
Tips for Remote Agile Team Performance
The following tips can positively impact the performance of remote Agile teams.
- Be Smart about Meetings: People start to disengage when meetings happen too frequently or not frequently enough, are too long or too short, don’t cover relevant topics, and end without conflict resolution. Be smart about meetings: Choose ideal times for the entire team, commit to a predetermined duration, stay on topic, and resolve conflicts quickly — doing so will help team members perform better because they will know what to expect.
- Use Videoconferencing Judiciously: Videoconferencing provides the opportunity for virtual face-to-face meetings, which can help team members communicate directly and create stronger bonds. It can be particularly ideal for daily scrums, sprint planning, sprint demos (product iteration demos), retrospectives (meetings at the end of iterations), and backlog grooming (plan refinement meetings). However, videoconferencing can also interfere with quality communication if not used judiciously, so consider interruptions to remote workers’ work-life balance when planning video calls (for example, not all workers have a dedicated space where they can communicate without disruptions). You can overcome this challenge by having additional communication tools, such as instant messaging.
- Structure Global Teams around Time Zones: When remote Agile team members work in different time zones around the world, finding ideal meeting times can be a challenge. Teams can overcome this challenge by meeting during the daytime hours that overlap. You can also stagger team member shifts to create additional time overlaps, such as early morning or late evening, depending on team members’ time zones.
- Minimize Handoffs and Wait Times: Agile project handoffs occur when one team needs to wait for another to complete work. The more frequently that handoffs arise, the more detrimental they are to a team’s productivity. High-performing Agile teams should aim for only a few or even no handoffs.
- Expand Knowledge with Training: Ideally, co-workers train other co-workers. In a coaching environment, one or more individuals introduce and model new concepts to inspire all team members to think of ways to improve their performance.
- Nurture an Open-Source Mindset: Open-source communities adopt practices that allow them to easily work with developers around the world. This structure encourages independent thinking, but thrives on documentation, communication, transparency, and collaboration. People who do well in an open-source community choose to do the work and take accountability. That’s why they contribute to open-source projects outside of their regular work hours.
Remote Agile Tips by Role: Leaders, Teams, and Individuals
Distributed teams are now a norm in many organizations, but they can be challenging. Here are some tactical actions that leaders, teams, and individuals can take to gain better results.
Communication and Collaboration in Agile Environments
The sixth of the 12 principles in the Agile manifesto is as follows: “Enable face-to-face interactions.” This speaks to the importance of communication in Agile projects.
There are three main team structures in today’s organizations:
- Traditional: Everyone works in the same location and shares the same physical space, such as a local office.
- Separated Development Team: A business is physically separate from its development team, such as in an offshore location.
- Distributed: The development team consists of members located in different parts of the world, separated by distance and time, such as in remote working scenarios.
In distributed or remote Agile teams, face-to-face communication is only a virtual option. Since “approximately 70% to 80% of effective communication is nonverbal,” according to Hung-Yue Suen’s article “Intelligent Video Interview Agent Used to Predict Communication Skill and Perceived Personality Traits,” additional proven processes must supplement communication methods. Strategies for effective communication across remote teams include the following:
- Overcommunicate: Agile development was originally designed with co-located teams in mind, so distributed teams using Agile must adjust to communicating without in-person interactions. To encourage the equivalent of in-office communications, provide access to tools that enable constant communications using videoconferencing, chat, and other tools. During the transition to a distributed work environment, encourage the team to overcommunicate until they find a comfortable routine.
- Commit to Regular Builds: In Agile, a build is the process step where team members integrate all or part of their application. Remote teams should create a consistent schedule for builds.
- Include Everyone: Ensure that every team member attends all remote meetings, including developers, UX designers, and business analysts.
- Document Conversations: Agile methodology suggests that teams document conversations only when it adds value to a project. Distributed teams may need to do more documentation than in-office groups, either on paper or video, to retain and share essential information.
- Use the Right Communication Tools: Today’s tech world offers an ever-growing variety of tools to facilitate remote communication. To improve communication among remote Agile teams, resist the urge to use too many tools and standardize a few that work best for the team.
Agile provides several ways to optimize performance, which remote Agile teams can quickly adopt, such as the following:
- Tighten Feedback Loops: Make time for everyone to ask for feedback throughout a project. This allows for each team member to clarify anything they’re unsure of and for quick issue resolution.
- Use Tools to Pair Programming: Pair programming leads to higher-quality code and fewer bugs through continuous code reviews and synchronous collaboration. In traditional pair programming, two programmers work side by side in front of the same computer. In remote pairing, programmers share the same workspace remotely by using real-time collaboration tools.
- Hold Frequent, Ad-Hoc Meetings Around a Virtual Whiteboard: Traditional Agile communication enhances face-to-face meetings using whiteboards, flip charts, paper, and index cards. Remote teams can leverage the same capabilities using virtual whiteboard applications, which they can use to facilitate and enrich daily stand-ups, 20-minute talks, and get-togethers. This helps ensure that distributed Agile development teams are always in sync.
Choose the Right Communication Tool to Escalate Issues
Most Agile teams adopt the ability to ask quick, clarifying questions during face-to-face meetings or as they run into teammates in the office. Increasingly, even distributed teams are finding ways to accomplish the same result.
Communication escalates naturally with co-located teams. Co-workers may initiate a conversation during a coffee break, then include other teammates when more details are needed.
Here is the typical agile escalation pattern:
- Chat 1 to 1
- Chat many to 1
- Voice call
- Visual call
- Screen share
- Collaborative composition
The following tips can help you achieve the same outcomes with distributed teams:
- Inventory Communication Channels: Assess the tools currently available for team communication. Choose a suite of tools that allows the natural escalation of communication needs for remote Agile teams.
- Assess Each Channel’s Effectiveness: Work with each new tool to determine its effectiveness in improving the team’s communication success.
- Define Protocols for Each Channel: Clearly lay out the protocols for using each method of communication, both on its own and as part of the comprehensive communication process.
- Share Communication Guidelines with the Team: Train every team member on the communication process.
Chris Alexander is the Director of Agile Delivery at EXPANSIA, which supports the U.S. Air Force Space Command and Control Programs. He shared the following example of how his geographically distributed software development team maintains communication.
“The team decided to utilize Zoom, a real-time videoconferencing tool. The entire Agile team remains logged into the team Zoom room, on their computers, for the entire duration of the workday. Also, they host a 15-minute stand-up meeting every morning at 9 AM, using the Zoom room with screen sharing.
“Minor questions and issues throughout the day take place in their team channel in Slack, a real-time text messaging application. Everyone monitors the channel to remain aware of issues, regardless of whether they were personally involved. Any discussion that requires more than a few lines will move to Zoom to increase the speed of information exchange.
“The team also uses technology to engage in remote pair programming. Pair programming normally involves two software engineers sitting side by side and working through software engineering code together. As a remote team, the engineers utilize a special software feature to share a terminal connection while chatting in real time in their own Zoom videoconferencing room. Although there was an initial learning curve, within a couple of weeks, they felt comfortable and were able to remote pair program effectively.”
Pros of a Remote Agile Team
Distributed work environments are more common than ever before and have the potential to be the dominant work structure of the future. Remote Agile teams are not just a trend — they are the way forward for a variety of reasons, including the flexibility to work on projects around the clock and the availability of strong talent in less competitive markets. Below are the benefits of a remote Agile team:
- Encourage Around-the-Clock Work on Flexible Schedules: With team members inhabiting a variety of time zones, companies have an opportunity to keep projects moving around the clock. To fuel this opportunity, give team members complete work flexibility to balance their work hours so that they can get the work done at a sustainable pace.
- Promote Iterative Project Development: The Agile approach gives software teams the ability to implement a clear framework that promotes iterative development and team collaboration with a focus on quality and efficiency.
- Improve Work Efficiencies: Instead of spending months working on a product or update, remote Agile teams can run through a development cycle in days or even hours.
- Expand Access to a Highly Skilled, Diverse Workforce: Because remote teams open up the geographical opportunities to hire new staff members, you have the chance to attract highly skilled, diverse employees living in different parts of the world.
- Save Money: When organizations don’t need to pay for office space, utilities, and other necessities to house workers in traditional office environments, they can dramatically reduce overhead costs.
- Reduce Work Interruptions: Unlike traditional office settings in which interruptions can always occur, individuals working independently in remote locations typically have fewer distractions and more time to think and focus on their work.
- Improve Documentation: Because remote teams need to document more of their work process to share status, goals, and outcomes, overall documentation improves.
Overcoming Challenges of Agile and Remote Teams
Agile development was originally intended for clustered teams physically located in the same office. But today, most organizations have distributed teams. Remote teams can create specific challenges, such as more complexities, communication gaps, culture gaps, time zones, skill gaps, and lack of transparency. Below, you will find tips on how to address many of the problems that come with Agile remote teams:
- Difficulty Adopting Agile Processes: For many distributed teams, it's challenging to adopt the Agile practice of face-to-face interactions. The right communication process helps companies overcome this challenge.
- Coordinating Across Time Zones: When team members are in multiple locations and time zones, it’s essential to maximize time together. Ensure priorities are clear before meetings, so time is productive. To maximize availability, schedule meetings during overlapping time zones.
- Building Rapport Among Team Members: All organizations benefit from having strong rapport across teams, especially those that follow the Agile method. Personal connections build trust, minimize expectations, ease self-organization, and boost morale. By ensuring that remote team members have time to get to know each other, organizations can make teams stronger.
- Collaborating Across Languages and Cultural Barriers: When team members come from different cultural backgrounds, it’s important to respect each other’s language and traditions. For example, people living in other countries should be free to celebrate their holidays. Better yet, the organization should recognize a global holiday schedule.
- Handling Team Conflicts: Every team will have conflicts. Managers who acknowledge issues and act quickly to create solutions will be more useful to their team than those who let interpersonal conflicts resolve on their own. This requires developing a process for handling conflicts, including identifying the problems, mediating conversations between team members, and following up.
- Miscommunication: Decision-making often happens quickly for team members who are in the same place. But when working remotely, it’s easy for the details to fall through the cracks. Distributed teams must maintain clear communication.
- Lack of Community: A sense of community helps teams perform optimally. But distributed teams have fewer opportunities to build rapport because they lack regular face-to-face interactions. Remote teams should plan virtual get-togethers regularly. This includes meeting new members and sharing updates in team members’ lives over video technologies, for example.
Agile Tools for Remote Teams
Ensure you have the right tools in place to facilitate the free and transparent flow of communication among remote Agile team members. An array of tools and platforms is available for project management, document sharing, and communication, which can help keep team members on the same page despite differences in locations and time zones.
- BitBucket: A web-based source-code management tool that allows development teams to design, collaborate, test, and implement development projects.
- Bamboo: A continuous integration and deployment tool that ties together automated builds, tests, and releases in a single workflow.
- Jira: An app for planning, tracking, and managing agile and software development projects.
- Google Drive: A file storage and synchronization service developed by Google, allowing users to store, synchronize, and share files.
- Microsoft Teams: A hub for team collaboration in Office 365 that integrates people, content, and tools.
- Confluence: A platform for document management and quick communication and collaboration between different teams, such as developers and technical writers.
- Slack: Essentially a chat room for a whole company, designed to replace email as a primary method of communication and sharing. Slack allows teams to organize communications by channels for group discussions, and for private messages to share information and files in one location.
- Zoom: An enterprise video communication tool with a reliable cloud platform for video- and audioconferencing, chat, and webinars.
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