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Remote and agile? How to best embrace distributed agile

Many organisations have been forced to quickly initiate remote working arrangements for their teams as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues and lockdowns take effect.

While the government is imposing tighter restrictions on travel and gatherings and encouraging people to work from home where possible, some leaders with their eye on global responses to the pandemic will likely have concerns about the timeliness and extent of these measures.

Forward-looking employers have some important judgment calls to make about a migration to distributed work. Building on existing flexible working options may smooth the path in the short-term, but it’s prudent to take a long-term perspective.

Of course, to make remote work possible your team needs to be able to reliably and securely log in, access their work digitally, and communicate. But in an environment where we’re facing a prolonged (possibly twelve to eighteen month) period where remote working will be the norm, an efficient transition to BAU isn’t enough.

The question in this environment isn’t ‘how do I get my teams to work remotely?’ It’s ‘how do I achieve and sustain high performance in a foreseeable future where remote working is the norm?’

Fortunately, Elabor8 has been working with remote workers and distributed teams for nearly a decade. In our experience, making the significant shift from face-to-face processes and artefacts to a digital context is easier when you focus on:

  • Creating shared consensus about how to work together constructively.
  • Careful preparation, encouraging participation, and clear communication.
  • Choosing the right digital tools and implementing them well.
  • Clearer requirements, shorter cadences, and visible workflows.
  • Building operating models that are fit-for-purpose for remote teams.
  • Creating ‘remote friendly’ governance frameworks.

Prepare for adjustments in team dynamics

Agile ways of working rely on continual interaction to support planning, delivery, and day-to-day cadences—how you manage the personalities and relationships between team members matters. It’s imperative to maintain a great team culture to effectively implement agile in distributed teams. You can foster a positive culture by:

Taking time to understand your team and how they interact: Reflect on where your employees sit on the introversion-extraversion scale, how they’re most comfortable interacting, learning, and contributing and what leadership approach will be required to improve engagement and cohesion.

Working together to create or adjust your team’s ‘ground rules’: Define the negative and positive elements of working together remotely, including how to deal with online interactions. It can help to prepare some base requirements to kick-start the conversation, e.g. talking over each other in teleconferences.

Fostering opportunities for social interaction and empathy: Teams with better interpersonal relationships and strong team morale are more likely to pull together. Virtual non-work catch-ups, chats, and bonding should be encouraged (online trivia anyone?).

Social contracts are powerful—when we commit to helping each other and set standards for behaviour it’s easier to hold one another accountable and remain on track.

We recently ran remote working preparedness sessions with 63 different teams across a number of industries. Here’s what one team leader had to say about the impact of their team agreeing how to work together remotely:

“It sounds pretty simple, but the power is that they added it to their Design Team Agreement and committed to keep each other responsible for respecting and supporting this alliance. They mentioned it was a great initiative as it will help them be emotionally supportive of each other in facing the uncertainty and vulnerability in upcoming days.”

Intensify your preparation for collaborative activities

Doing agile in a distributed team can be daunting. Agile development was designed with physical teams in mind. Hence, most of the ceremonies— iteration planning, daily standups, backlog grooming, retrospectives, and showcases—rely on immediate, in-person interactions.

But distributed agile can be done. The format may be different, but the same principles apply.

We’re currently helping several clients to remotely facilitate sprints, iteration planning and retrospectives, as well as more complex facilitation of remote program increment planning (remote PI planning). Our experience indicates that it’s important to:

Find remote-friendly variations to the format: Real-time communication online is easier than ever before with a range of chat, video chat, and screen-sharing tools available. Trial and select appropriate tools—do they match your security, usability, and bandwidth needs? It’s wise to have a back-up plan too—what low-fidelity approaches could achieve the same results if technology fails? (e.g., conference calling as a fall back.)

Use purpose-built tools: VideoFacilitator is an amazing tool built by a friend of Elabor8, Peter Lee. It’s purpose-built for facilitating in a remote context and allows you to create rooms, set timers, breakout and re-join, and collaborate on shared documents pinned to the rooms that you set up.

Make every activity purposeful: (Many of us know the joke about the meeting that should’ve been an email.) Remote working tends to mean calendars fill up with more meetings and check-ins than ever, as people seek to achieve the same level of interaction they experienced in the office. When a joint activity is necessary be more deliberate with how you engage people, have an agenda and be laser-focused on the outcomes to be achieved. Also, consider who really needs to be involved.

Thoughtfully schedule to increase presence: Carefully plan and schedule activities with an awareness of different time zones, workloads, and personal commitments. If you want people to contribute meaningfully, be flexible about requesting their time and put boundaries on when they’re expected to engage and respond. Remember, people’s attention will wane if meetings are too long; they need time to prepare for activities and reflect on activities (this shouldn’t suddenly change now that people are working from their homes); they need breaks to use the bathroom, stretch, or have a snack.

Emphasise engagement before, during, and after activities: Give distributed agile teams the information and artefacts they need prior to each meeting, and ensure technology is ready to go so delays don’t distract or frustrate. The facilitator must keep the conversation on track, give everyone a chance to speak, and make it safe to ask for clarification, plus ensure attendees get copies of notes and actually follow-up on actions afterwards.

It can help to create a checklist for what needs to occur for the success of each activity and ensure everyone understands who’s responsible for completing each item.

At a difficult time when most people are at home with their spouses or partners and children—perhaps facing struggles you know nothing about—leaders wanting to get the best out of their teams should also pay special attention to respecting people’s right to a private life.

Bring extra clarity to work coordination

We found one of the early challenges of doing agile in distributed teams was conflicting priorities and confusion about work in progress. Leaders of technology and product development teams can improve visibility of what’s happening across a distributed agile team by:

Leading with intent: Working from home has shown to increase productivity if you trust and empower your team. Share clear expectations through open and consistent dialogue. Avoid extra meetings to track progress, but you may want to bridge the gap with collaboration tools. Communicate with the whole team at once rather than via private channels, to avoid crossed wires or duplicated messages.

Making work highly visible: This means making your team’s backlogs, work in progress, and support requests available in digital, cloud-based tools. Try to centralise information so its accessible to all, give people time to learn new tools, and encourage them to use these tools during activities like the daily standup to keep information on workloads up to date.

Going smaller: More so than usual, make sure you’re breaking down work into smaller pieces and using short iterations to make it easier to stay focused on delivering value. Define clear roles and delineations for distributed agile teams to reduce confusion. Put in faster feedback loops to evaluate progress, and your team will start having daily wins.

Be guided by agile principles to go remote

Apply what you know about agile philosophies to your transformation to a remote team. Experiment, iterate rapidly, and make changes based on feedback—developing discipline around these behaviours is essential in uncertain times.

As well as our own remote working experience, many of these insights have emerged from our work with clients. Our planning sessions have highlighted what’s required to ensure the transition to distributed teams is a smooth one, while continuing to benefit from agile practices.

Adjust your operating and governance models

In future articles we’ll address these topics in detail, but it’s important to understand that silos become chasms when working remotely and traditional approaches to governance are counterproductive. Companies that redefine their operating model, design, and governance frameworks early will be able to rapidly outpace their competitors and also create the possibility for sustainable ‘work from anywhere’ policies.

Organisation that have adopted remote working as a habit have greater access to talent, lower operating costs per unit of headcount, and higher engagement. Those that treat this event as an opportunity rather than a nuisance will enjoy sustained benefits in a post COVID-19 world.

Do you need help to evaluate your remote working capacity and establish a plan to ensure your agile uplift continues as you switch to a virtual work environment?

Our remote agile practitioners are sharing and evolving approaches for effective remote working through their experiences across all our clients sites. If you need an experienced hand to guide your, we’re ready to help.