Agile has been accepted and proven to be one of the best and most important work practices for not only software development but now extending beyond software to other parts of the organization. One of the key principles of Agile is having “face-to-face” interaction amongst organized teams in co-location settings. So, given this, how does Agile apply in a remote work, aka “telework”, environment? In what ways is Agile relevant (or not?) in a setting where many, if not all, organization teams work remotely?
Actually, the Agile mindset and the methodologies that support Agile can also allow teams to work effectively when located remotely.
Understanding Agile and Scrum
The term Agile describes a specific set of foundational principles and values for organizing and managing complex work. Agile principles and values foster the mindset and skills which businesses need in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment. The term Agile was first used in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (Agile Manifesto) back in 2001…
Scrum fulfills the vision of the Agile Manifesto by helping individuals and businesses organize their work to maximize collaboration, minimize red tape, deliver frequently, and create multiple opportunities to inspect and adapt.
The difference between Agile and Scrum is that Agile refers to a set of principles and values shared by several methodologies, processes, and practices…while Scrum is one of several Agile frameworks–and is the most popular.
In an Agile / Scrum project, it is preferable for team members to be located together because it provides the greatest degree of collaboration and promotes the highest level of effectiveness in working toward the same product. However, even within a remote environment there can be a high level of effectiveness.
Bringing Remote to an Agile World
Remote work is currently getting plenty of attention due to the COVID-19 situation. For “agilists” today it may seem contradictory to practice Agile at a distance: How is one supposed to ensure human interaction? How can one relate to clients and colleagues alike from the other side of a screen? Is it even Agile to attempt remote work?
Remote Agile does look different than “regular” Agile, and that should be okay. In truth, Agile teams in organizations of all sizes have been wrestling with this under a different name for quite a while: distributed teams.
Buffer and AngelList recently published the 2020 State of Remote Work Report which found that remote work flourishes and enables business continuity. Even before COVID-19 forced so many people to suddenly become remote workers, the report found that:
- The question is no longer “is remote work here to stay?” It seems like remote work might even be the new normal.
- The report explored the challenges people found with remote working. The report revealed that 58% of negative experiences were down to collaboration difficulties, isolation and “not being able to unplug.” All of these challenges are being exacerbated in the current situation where people have been forced to become suddenly remote.
So, given a teleworking or distributed environment, there are several proven practices to follow in order to work effectively and productively:
Preparing for Your Day
Just like going to the office, you have a routine. Shower, get dressed, walk the dog, breakfast, kids to school, NPR on your commute, etc. Are you waking up and start working first thing? Unplug, enjoy your morning. Get prepared for your workday. Starting early adds the feeling of several more hours to your day – this can drain the adrenaline from most. Do you usually work out? Do that – there are many at-home routines to enjoy. Do you listen to audio books? Continue to do that, schedule the time. Find your new normal.
Where’s Your Water Cooler?
When working in an office environment, there is typically hallway conversation, before and after meeting chit-chat time, and breakroom / water cooler conversations. These unscheduled conversations are sometimes more valuable than scheduled conversations. According to Viktoria Stray¹, results show that employees spend somewhat more time in ad hoc conversations and unscheduled meetings than they do in scheduled meetings.
So, create your virtual “Central Perk” coffee shop, use a Zoom breakout room or a separate video conference. Keep this live. When you take a break, coffee, water, stretch, join this video conference as a replacement for the breakroom / water cooler. How’s the family? What are you watching on Netflix? Find your water cooler.
Impact of Remote Environment to Agile Practices
There are a number of best practices in order to perform effective and successful Agile/Scrum projects but the practices that are probably impacted the most by working in a teleworking environment are as follows:
- Face-to-Face Interaction
- Team Collaboration
- Team Alignment
- Building Trust
Face-To Face Interaction
There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating that face-to-face communication is the most effective means of exchanging information. This occurs inherently within a co-located team, but it is more challenging in a distributed environment and every effort needs to be made to achieve the same high level of engagement. Not being co-located creates communication challenges for teleworking teams
Overlapping office hours help to facilitate periods for discussions, problem solving, remote pairing, and other activities that contribute to a project’s success. It is crucial to create as much overlapping time during the day as possible. The less overlap there is in “normal working hours”, more independent or solo work is going to be taking place (read: less collaboration) which can easily take teams off track.
Successful Agile teams have strong and immediate feedback loops that allow them to validate work with each other before investing too heavily in an approach. The more of the workday team members are spending without the ability to reach out to someone in another role, the deeper the investment becomes in something that could be discarded.
Team members at different locations often fall back to using low bandwidth communication channels, such as emails or documents, which generates large amounts of lost or misunderstood information. Therefore, high bandwidth communication tools such as video conferencing or desktop sharing should be used as frequently as possible. Having video capability allows for improved communication compared to traditional conference calls. Video conferencing is the next best thing to being in the physical room at the same time.
Adding video is a technology that allow us to continue our human connection. Video keeps meeting attendees mentally present. When on video, one is paying attention. People are automatically engaged as they can see attendee reactions. When on audio only, people feel free to do other things – if there are other things to do, then do that and skip the video meeting.
To maintain constant high-bandwidth communication, a comprehensive suite of video conferencing, desktop sharing, and instant messaging tools should be provided – such as WebEx, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, Google Talk, etc. These channels should be readily available and easily accessible to all team members.
Agile needs a high degree of collaboration to work successfully. We’re talking true collaboration, not just people working on the same project together. So anytime we take on an Agile endeavor, we have to create an environment that allows collaboration to flourish. In order for collaboration to work; 1) people need to know and be comfortable with each other 2) everyone has to bring something to the table 3) you have to be able to work on the same thing at the same time (you may not always be working on something at the same time as someone else, but you have to be able to do it when you need to).
One component of collaboration is transparency, which is critical in a teleworking environment. It’s important that anyone in the organization is able to enter any distributed team space to view progress or ask questions of the team without disrupting the work in progress. Furthermore, it means that any team member has the infrastructure available to easily see what any other team member is doing to foster rapid collaboration.
This openness allows anyone in the company to view a team’s work and quickly have questions answered without significant disturbance to the team’s work.
Remote work looks different for each employee depending on their needs and those of their family. Organizations can meet employees’ needs by empowering teams to adapt to their conflicting time demands. One proven approach for creating team alignment is by establishing a team working agreement.
A working agreement is a common set of expectations that a team creates to capture how they will work together and engage with each other. It is a living document that captures how the team will work based on team members’ needs. For even co-located teams, this is a valuable asset. However, the team working agreement becomes even more critical when team members are working remotely. It makes visible and evident any hidden assumptions about working together:
Because no two teams are alike, working agreements will differ and depending on the team or phase of work, working agreements should be modified to account for changes in the type of work or work environment. Based on new learnings, the team’s collective needs will likely change. The working agreement should reflect those changing needs.
Example of what could be covered in a working agreement include:
- What technology and tools will be used for communication? for delivery?
- How long should meetings be? What happens in full-day sessions?
- Will there be breaks or a lunch? How many and how long?
- What styles of work need to be accommodated?
- How does the group celebrate accomplishments?
- What are the core hours each day
- How do we handle disagreements?
Finally, the team commits to uphold the working agreement as the single source of truth for how individuals on the team collaborate, deliver value, care for themselves and each other, and do whatever else will unlock the most potential from the group.
The strength of the working agreement lies in the team’s commitment to it, including the commitment to hold each other accountable. Without some degree of commitment and accountability, team members may sub-optimize their own work. That is why the agreement should be created by the team as a whole and every item in it should be agreed to by each team member. If one team member does not support an item, remove it. The team makes its own working agreement. Otherwise, one cannot expect full support or accountability.
Nothing is more important than this crucial element of a productive team, and building trust is essential in the formation of cohesiveness between team members. Gaining trust is a challenge when team members are distributed across different time zones, cultures, and environments, and when they also face communication, language, technical alignment, and project management issues. When a team does not possess a minimum level of trust, it’s more difficult to deal with challenges when they appear – it is often easy to blame and criticize the ‘other’ groups and the team can break down into competing tribes. When trust is strong, team members are able to work through the most difficult issues and they often create innovative solutions.
Mutual trust is at the heart of successful remote work initiatives in the distributed workplace. Application leaders must trust that their employees will act responsibly when working remotely. Creating a culture of trust is a top-down responsibility. Application leaders have a vital role in the following:
- Trusts them to do their work remotely
- Accepts responsibility to enable them to do so effectively
- Will fairly and transparently measure remote work productivity and performance
For an Agile / Scrum team, rigorously following the Scrum Values could exponentially aid in building trust, not only amongst the team members…but also establish trust between the team and the organization.
Successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living the five Scrum values. People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Team members have courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems. Everyone focuses on the work of the Sprint and the goals of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Team and its stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work. Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people.
When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect are followed, it is expected that trust will increase for everyone on the remote team.
According to Agile Alliance (Can You be Remotely Agile?), it is firmly believed that the Agile Manifesto can also apply to distributed Agile teams. All four Agile values and the twelve Agile principles hold. It requires a different way of thinking about the work and work environment.
Working as a distributed Agile team is not merely just the continuation of usual practices with the appropriate tools but practically a paradigm shift, emphasizing self-organization, trust, transparency, and the inclusion of everyone. While this may appear obvious on paper, realizing the required changes at a team or organizational level can be a major undertaking that if not implemented right, could result in encountering numerous remote Agile anti-patterns.
¹Stray, Viktoria. (2018). Planned and unplanned meetings in large-scale projects. 1-5. 10.1145/3234152.3234178.