The recent onset of COVID-19 has created a new operational model for companies around the globe who suddenly find themselves scrambling to maintain continuity of operations and productivity in the face of a completely remote workforce. While this creates a wide range of unique and complicated challenges from technical enablement to management strategies, this post will focus on how these changes impact Agile teams and some of the strategies that teams can employ to bridge the gap between being in-person and what people are now referring to as “the new normal.”
Does Agile Work Remotely?
A fair question to ask from the outset is whether Agile will even work in a completely remote environment. With a premium placed on “face-to-face interaction” and intensive team collaboration, Agile is certainly fine-tuned for an in-person, collocated team dynamic. However, those who have been a part of a remote Agile team already know that the answer to the above question is a qualified “yes.” Teams can certainly still adhere to the principles and values of Agile and even maintain the rhythm and ceremonies of frameworks like Scrum and Kanban in a remote construct, but the fact is that will almost certainly not be as effective or efficient as they would be in person. Shifting Agile teams to a remote environment can have a negative impact on many areas, including the three highlighted in this post:
- Team Dynamics
- Decision Latency
- Information Exchange
We will explore these areas of impact, describe how and why they result from remote work conditions, and offer some tips to help teams adjust.
Decades of psychological and sociological research have taught us that humans are especially adapted for face-to-face interactions. Our subconscious minds register dozens of non-verbal communication mechanisms that we instinctively produce when communicating our thoughts and feelings. Some tantalizing research has even begun to suggest that we use our sense of smell in subconscious ways to glean information and form judgements of those around us. When many or most of these non-verbal forms of communication are removed, a team’s ability to communicate effectively and thus work collaboratively will be severely impacted. This will be truer for newer teams that are still moving through the various stages of the Tuckman model, than it will for mature teams that have already reached the “performing” stage. However, even the most mature teams will find it harder to “get on the same page” or “keep everyone in the loop,” and misunderstandings or conflicts will be amplified by the attenuated communication mechanisms of remote work. So how can we help our Agile teams overcome these challenges?
The first thing to consider is that… well, you can’t. A team’s performance will likely suffer some, and conflicts and miscommunications are going to be more frequent and exaggerated. Say it out loud to your teams so everyone can hear it. Acknowledge this openly at all levels of your organization to make sure everyone’s expectations are aligned. There is just no way to reproduce the level of communications available in person. There are, however, ways to mitigate these effects, and here are a couple tips for consideration:
Tip 1: Overcommunicate
Because our communication abilities are attenuated in a remote environment, it is important we overutilize our verbal and written communications and leverage different methods of delivery to exchange thoughts and ideas. Express the same idea in different ways. Invite the thoughts and opinions of your teammates and press them when they respond by asking follow-up questions. This will likely feel like overcommunicating, and sometimes it will be. The great thing about overcommunicating is that it doesn’t really have very many negative consequences, whereas under-communicating almost always does.
Tip 2: Get Ahead of Conflict:
As a Scrum Master, it is often best to let mild conflict play out in hopes the individuals can find resolution without your involvement. This is much more likely to happen in a collocated environment where people are forced into constant interactions. In those cases, people will generally work through the conflict relatively quickly or the conflict will escalate quickly and provide an opportunity for coaching. In remote environments, people can silo and more actively avoid team members with whom they disagree, which allows conflicts to fester. Conflict also becomes more likely because of the increased potential for miscommunication mentioned above. The Scrum Master will need to keep careful watch for conflict and proactively probe team members to head conflict off at the pass. Pulse checks are a great way to do this. Every week or so, call and have a five- to 10-minute discussion with each team member and ask specifically how things are going and if there is anything bothering them. It’s important to help team members understand the purpose of the call and let them know that you will be doing this from time to time; otherwise, they may be guarded or think you’re singling them out.
Much has been written about the significant impacts of decision latency on the agility and velocity of Scrum teams. According to the Standish Group database (which includes over 50,000 project sets of 8-25 projects each), projects in which the average time it takes to make a decision is greater than 5 hours have a success rate of just 18%. In collocated environments, teams can often just grab their stakeholders and get their immediate input on a key feature of a user story. If a stakeholder is busy, you can often catch them between meetings or when walking out to lunch.
In remote work environments, however, this spontaneous level of communication is very difficult to achieve even with communication tools like Slack or MS Teams. This leads to an overreliance on scheduled meetings rather than spontaneous communication, and as a result, remote teams can often struggle to get the quick decisions they need from key stakeholders.
This latency puts teams in a holding pattern while decisions are made and interrupts the critical element of “Flow” that Agile teams want to optimize. The result can be anything from team confusion about priorities and tradeoffs to work stoppages that impact team velocity and have a cascading effect on the rhythm of product delivery.
Here are a couple of ways that teams can avoid decision latency and provide opportunities for more spontaneous communication in a remote work environment.
Tip 1: Empower the Team
One of the foundational principles from the Agile Manifesto is to, “build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.” While it’s always important to empower Agile teams and push decision-making to the lowest level possible, it is especially important when communications are more limited through remote work. If teams are forced to constantly seek approval from stakeholders and managers through scheduled remote meetings, timeframes for decision-making will inflate and impact the team’s ability to perform. Leaders and stakeholders can guard their interests by proactively communicating them with product owners and then empowering the product owners to represent them. The occasional mistake and wrong decision will no-doubt be made, but that is a far better outcome than continuously impeding the progress of the team.
Tip 2: Establish Office Hours
Because of the lack of spontaneous interaction in remote work environments, it may become difficult to easily communicate with the product owner or Scrum Master or even key management stakeholders in an unstructured way. One way to counter this effect is for key decision makers to hold open office hours every day at a specific time. This works by sending out a meeting invite to all relevant team members and then simply holding an open video teleconference for an hour or so. This way, team members can pop in and out as necessary to get quick decisions or opinions without having to schedule a full meeting. Some might even pop in just to say “hi” and catch up, which is also important.
Because Agile is fine-tuned for face-to-face team interaction, teams often rely heavily on collaborative exercises that fully leverage an in-person medium. Activities like whiteboarding, user story maps, retrospective games, and planning poker are all typically built around an in-person team. Remote teams are hampered in their ability to run these activities effectively partly because they are not interacting with each other in person, but also because they frequently lack effective collaboration tools. While these exercises will never be as engaging or effective remotely as they would be in person, they can come close by implementing the right tools and practices.
Tip 1: Video Collaboration
There are several good reasons why team members don’t like to be on video. Their office is messy; their hair is messed up; they are wearing an ugly shirt; or they hate seeing themselves on a screen. While these are sometimes legitimate reasons, they are obstacles that need to be overcome to effectively exchange information. As mentioned above, we humans often communicate subconsciously through facial expressions and gestures. As a result, if a team member only hears a voice, they are likely missing half of the information a co-worker is communicating about how they are thinking and feeling. This is troublesome in activities like playing planning poker for estimating but can be downright devastating in highly sensitive team communications like retrospectives or stakeholder interviews. In a remote work environment, it is important to make presence on video a requirement for all team members. There should, of course, be room for exceptions, but those exceptions should be few and far between. Some of the team members will likely be resistant, which makes it key for both management and the Scrum Master to help team members understand the impact and cost of not being fully present for their team.
Tip 2: Collaboration Tools
If you ever walk into an Agile team workspace, you will likely be surrounded by sticky notes, whiteboards, flip-chart pages, and other forms of Big Visual Information Radiators (BVIRs). These all represent mechanisms for team collaboration and information exchange that are particularly effective at helping teams physically manifest their ideas and then manipulate and shape those ideas together. Like most of what we have discussed, these exercises will always be more effective face-to-face, but there are some excellent tools available that can help remote teams collaborate. There are far too many cloud collaboration tools to cover in an article or probably even a book, but here are a few that are particularly effective:
Miro – One of the most impressive collaboration tools available, Miro has intuitive functionality for whiteboarding, sticky notes, line connectors, and text that creates a highly flexible and collaborative workspace for teams. It even has templates for retrospectives, user story maps, PI planning, and many other Agile exercises.
Mural – Similar to Miro, Mural is a cloud-based solution that enables remote collaboration on a digital workspace using roadmaps, diagrams, virtual whiteboards, and other visual methods. This tool is also very intuitive and is particularly effective for both visual collaboration activities (like remote sprint sessions and UX artifacts) and personal productivity tools, such as mood boards.
Planningpoker.com – This is a very effective and widely used story-sizing and estimating tool. Planning Poker’s free site has a lightweight interface with relatively robust functionality. For paid accounts, it even offers integration with Jira.
Remote work has long-been considered a substandard way to create high-performing Agile teams. While face-to-face teams will always be the ideal, reality sometimes dictates otherwise. Sometimes circumstances beyond our control – whether it be a business decision or a global pandemic like the current COVID-19 virus – will force teams to work remotely for short durations or even indefinitely.
Business leaders should understand and accept that remote work will have an impact on an Agile team’s ability to perform. However, if we are truly being Agile, we should constantly experiment with new tactics and techniques to improve our teams’ performance no matter the circumstances. Hopefully, the ideas and techniques above will help your teams to understand some of the risks inherent in remote work, but also give you helpful tips for how to overcome them.
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 Zaraska, Marta. “The Sense of Smell in Humans is More Powerful Than We Think.” Discover Magazine, October 11, 2017.
 Jeff Sutherland, “Why Less Communication is Better.” Scrum.inc, April 12th, 2019.
 Kent Beck et al, “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” Agilemanifesto.org, 2001.