As an Agile Coach, I often try to simplify things and refer people (and myself) to the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Almost all agilists can remember at least the first core value, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Though the introverts might cringe about it, most are also familiar with the principle, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” In order to help facilitate these ideas, many companies have built special team rooms that allow agile remote teams to work in close proximity to each other to enhance the free flow of information during development. Enter COVID-19.
In order to slow the spread of the novel corona virus, the government has requested that people practice social distancing. Many companies have sent their agile teams home, because knowledge workers can set up shop anyplace there is Internet access and electricity. They are able to stay in continuous communication with each other (though not necessarily face-to-face) via some sort of instant messaging application, like Slack, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams (among others). Is that going to be enough to sustain teams? Were the original signers of the Manifesto wrong when they specifically called out face-to-face communication as being critical to successful agile development?
One major advantage these newly distributed agile teams have is that they were already teams. They know what they need to do, because they have been doing it together for a while. People who were co-located, but are now distributed, understand that they are working with other real people, and they are familiar with their teammates’ idiosyncrasies. Once a team is truly performing (having already Formed, Stormed, and Normed, as referred to in the Tuckman Model), they can handle minor inconveniences, like being distributed. Groups that have never been co-located, on the other hand, struggle to build the bonds required to throw themselves whole heartedly into a project together as a team.
There are some keys to making agile remote teams work. 1) First and foremost is the need to make ourselves available to each other. I recently worked with a company that had no central office and contracted people from around the world to work together on a product. The Product Owner was anywhere from 3 to 9 hours behind the development team. Some of the development team members didn’t want to work before 9AM in their time zone, which allowed for very little overlap in schedules for Scrum Events to occur. Worse, hours would pass before responses came when sending a Slack message to people on the team (even when they were in the same time zone). In order for distributed work schedules to work, teammates need to make themselves available to each other.
2) Another important key for new teams is getting to know each other. It is a lot easier to be “me” focused when working with group of individuals you have never met, or taken the time to get to know. Even if it happens virtually (though I would recommend doing it in person), building relationships matters. High functioning teams need to Form, Storm, and Norm before they can Perform. Understanding what motivates people helps us relate to them and have empathy and compassion. You aren’t really a team until you are ready to make sacrifices for each other. That only happens when we care about the other members of the team.
3.) Put together a Team Working Agreement. Once the team has Formed and Stormed, they should be ready to gather around common Norms and values. Getting those ideas down in writing and having everyone sign off agreement on them gives the team a common platform to work from.
4.) Finally, leverage technology. Use video (conscientiously mute), talk, text, chat, whatever. There are some great free online tools for Retrospectives. Use your favorite search engine or ask other teams what they have been using. Continuous improvement doesn’t need to stop just because we aren’t able to sit in a room together. In a few months we will all be back together again, hopefully with stronger bonds than we had before we separated, and renewed respect for the survivors that make up the human race. Stay healthy!
Esse quam videri,