Remote agile teams are a reality…despite the obvious, much discussed and debated issues, in today’s increasingly competitive digital world they just aren’t going to go away. So…let’s get used to this fact and, whilst we don’t doubt the agile principle that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”, let’s work out the very best way to work with remote teams and take advantage of the great opportunities they can offer.
Let’s look again at what is possible with remote teams.
How it all too often is…
I’ve worked on/coached/observed remote agile teams for over ten years now, from India to Finland, Israel to Japan. Whatever the makeup of the team, whether fully remote from HQ, distributed (some members co-located, others remote) or something else, common anti-patterns can arise over time that cause the teams to work in a less than optimal way.
All too often teams are just thrown together, three developers in one country, two in another and a product owner or business analyst in another. “Team forming” happens during the first five minutes of the team’s first call – a planning session, or worse, a daily Scrum – with no real thought given to it or effort put into it…and then the team gets to work…expected to somehow, magically start performing as a team.
Over time webcams are left unused in the corner of a meeting room or disabled on individual’s laptops, meetings arranged with no link for online participants, team communication not shared with everybody. Team members might go years without having actually met each other or be excluded from meetings because of the time zone they are in, or even because they don’t understand the common language spoken (yep, that really happened!). Planning work as a team is replaced by planning solely as co-located sub teams or individuals. Team members never get to talk to a real customer or see how the product they are developing is used in the real world because of their geographic location. Retrospectives always taking the same, stale format or being dropped altogether…I could go on.
In my experience, over time, this can all too often just become “business as usual” for remote teams.
Remote Shangri-La – how it could be…
It doesn’t have to be that way! If sufficient time is invested in the makeup and forming of a remote team, and recognition given to the need for constant, ongoing care of that team then why can’t remote teams perform as well as their co-located counterparts…or indeed outperform them, as they turn their diversity to their advantage.
So, what would a high performing remote team look like? I envisage it as a team that can work from anywhere. Yes, perhaps individuals sat at desks in different countries, but with constant communication links open to their teammates. Two large monitors each, half of one dedicated to always showing a tiled video image of their team mates and what they are doing, whilst the other half has an instant messaging client open with ongoing conversations that they can drop in and out of as required.
The team seamlessly move from their development environment or the document they were writing to their daily meeting just by clicking the hyperlink in the calendar reminder that popped up. Headsets are always on, or inbuilt speakers and microphones calibrated just as they like it so there is flawless movement from work tasks to meetings or calls with colleagues.
The same tech is used for collaboration with customers, using public and private chat streams to separate conversations for internal or external audiences as appropriate.
Everybody thinks “remote first” when discussing any important information and disseminates the results of discussions, where necessary, to all team members quickly and clearly.
All meetings allow time for some social chat so that team mates get to know each other. This time isn’t scheduled as part of an agenda, it’s just the understood, culture of the teams to take the time to check-in with each other and recognise the importance of social bonding to their overall team wellbeing.
Regular, bi-monthly face to face team meetups are held at HQ or the most convenient location. If there are multiple members of the team at one location, then a different person might be nominated to attend the meetup each time. The meetup includes dedicated, company paid social time for team building, team bonding.
Line managers setup regular catch up calls with all of their remote reports, and also encourage teammates to just call each other occasionally to check all is ok and catch up over “virtual coffee”.
The teams give and receive feedback for all other team members freely and unconditionally.
And so on…remote team Shangri-La! In fact, a lot of those traits or behaviours apply to any team, remote or not!!
Some things to consider…
Which of the things above would make the most difference to remote teams in your organisation? Consider what needs to change in order for those things to happen. What can you do now to facilitate that?
And not only that, how can you make the change stick? How can you make it part of the culture of your remote teams? Is the change something that you want to make part of the culture of all of your teams? …part of the culture of your organisation? To make that change do you need to move from an organisation that tells its teams and people what to do to somewhere where people are intrinsically motivated to co-create? …where it’s just something that they do.
Going back to remote teams, are the cultural foundations in place to support this way of working? Does everybody know why the organisation uses remote teams? What are the business reasons? Take time to communicate this. In most cases the use of remote teams isn’t just about cost savings. Emphasise the local support, local knowledge and diversity of thinking that remote teams enable for the business. The larger talent pool that both individuals and the business can benefit from.
Some things to try…
- To maintain social relationships, deliberately open or close remote meetings with water cooler conversations – “John, what are you doing at the weekend?”. Simple but often forgotten.
- Set status flags in IM clients and out of office notifications – “Oh yeah, Dan’s Slack status is set to vacation, he’s out all week”.
- Encourage each team to have a set of remote working agreements that include things like; the default time zone for the team, which tools to use for different types of communication, when to expect people from each time zone to be online, always use webcams etc.
- Regular face to face meetings. Even one week a year would make a difference – allowing team mates to socialise, build empathy & trust, and allow them to break down any walls that have developed within the team.
- Make sharing of information the norm – “This is an interesting conversation, let’s move it to the group chat so that everybody can join in”. Overshare rather than under-share.
- Experiment – try different tools – WebEx, Skype, Slack, Zoom, MS Teams, Hangouts, Sococo, Retrium. What works for one team might not work for another. Inspect and adapt.
- Rotate meeting roles. Different members of the team will have different facilitation styles – embrace that.
Model these behaviours yourself – set the standards for how team members interact.
Most of these changes are easy to implement…the real challenge comes in making them stick. It’s all too easy for the broken web cam to not be replaced or the face to face meet-ups to be cancelled because of scheduling or budget difficulties, all too easy for complacency to set in and the anti-patterns to reappear.
Invest time and effort
Fending off complacency and achieving real success with remote teams requires investment; investment in technology, investment in relationships, investment in travel, investment in all of the factors that go into creating great teams. Fundamentally though, these investments should be underpinned with investment in time and effort. No team gets to a high performing state overnight and logically, remote teams are going to take even longer to get there.
Do the basics, model the behaviour with all teams, make these things the norm! Empower the teams to work out for themselves how they can best create this environment for remote teams…but above all else…don’t give up on remote teams!