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How do you Run Remote Agile Teams?

There was a time when development teams or for that matter, support teams as well used to sit under the same roof. Their challenges centered around finding meeting rooms and getting high speed internet. Customers generally were not co-located, and more often than not were not in the same time zone as well. As long as the teams that do the work were situated together, it was all good.

Then came the infamous covid pandemic and the once co-located teams moved into home work stations. There was no luxury of a pilot being run on how things would turn if people were to work from home. Yet, when the need arose, people worked from homes, and it’s been two years since, and things have turned out okay. Well, almost!

While organizations talk about the power of working from homes without disrupting the business, there are niggles that nobody wants to talk about. While the team worked to achieve what was asked, the team, never became a one-team. The team did not bond. After all, there were no water coolers or breakout areas for employees to bond over. So, their bonding times was with their immediate family members, more often than not. With teams not coming together, the hairline cracks that may have existed widen as time progresses. Companies bringing back people to offices is more or less ruled out. Once employees tasted the comfort of their homes, they are not going to swap it with the burden of travel and cafeteria food.

There are a number of things that companies do, but according to me, here are the five things that will change the fabric of remote working.

Agility in the DNA: Forget the Best Practices

Yes, we know that in Agile, there are best practices that organizations start to imbibe and get moving as the rest of the world does. But do we really stop and think whether this templatized version of Agile fits the remote team in play. Think about it. There may be different ways of achieving the expected outcomes through practices that are either new or is a tweaked form of the best practices. So, the question to ask is for a team where the team members are remote, what is the best process to implement, what is the ideal tool to bring in place.

Consider the individuals involved in the project that is run remotely. See what fits them the best. Develop or adopt processes that work with this team. There are several tools to collaborate, this team may work the best using a particular tool. You may need to find it. Value the interactions. Value the people. Do not think processes and tools especially when remote teams are involved.

An example could be the medium for communication. Does the team prefer to have video calls, or would it work better with a group chat? Some people interact better when they prefer to put the words in writing rather than talking it out.

Experiment till You Crack It

In the world of DevOps, we stress on the aspect of experimentation because we want the team members to be at their creative best to get the best possible result. In a remote team too, we do not know what works and what doesn’t. The make-up of a team cannot be a standard one as pointed out previously. So, new ways of working needs to be introduced. How do we know what works and what doesn’t? The only way to find out is to run it for a few days and weeks and see if it works. If it does, great. Or we know that we need to find another way.

The DNA of the team should not be built on opinions and biases but rather on the intent to experiment and find out. It will serve the team well in a lot of ways. In discussions with the customer, the team can always assent to customer requests by running a proof of concept. Based on the outcome of the experiments, the team must inspect the results and adapt accordingly – it could either lead to new ways of working or working around the limitations.

Communicate, Communicate and Communicate

In an office setting, communicating with team members is so much easier. People sit across and next to each other. Communication between the team members becomes smooth as silk. It need not be an event. There are break out areas which serve as a nice spot for further conversations. Then cafeteria talk too can further the communication agenda.

However, in a remote team, communicating with people is more often than not takes more effort, and it takes a formal shape whether you give the color to it or not. A quick ping to a colleague and the response are recorded in the logs. An email too gets the same treatment. A conference call or a 1-1 call requires dedicated time for the conversation, and a call generally becomes a sign of official communication.

Well, given the circumstances, the team needs to ensure that they communicate all the time. Whether they pick the route of chat, email or call, it doesn’t matter. But the communication channel must always be open. I remember when I was first interviewed for the position of a project manager, I was asked a question of percentage of average communication efforts in a project. This was prior to Agile and definitely between co-located teams. I had said 50%. The interviewer had smiled and told me that it was upwards of 70%. In Agile and in remote teams, for the projects to succeed, the number of conversations and channels of communication between team members has to go up higher than 70% for success to be a part of the setup.

Build the Remote Team

We used to have team building exercises when we were younger. It was necessarily a form of a sport that required the team to work together to achieve the physical goal. The games were planned around building a bond between the team members. Not only that. These exercises were at an offsite location, which meant that the teams had to be driven there, and along with the breaks and other interactions, the bonding between team members grew just as easily.

Today the DNA of a team is all virtual. I have not seen many of my team members in physical form. How do we build the bond between team members in a remote setting?

What I said earlier about being agile and not following a practice because its deemed best holds true here as well. There may be certain ways of bonding your teams virtually. You need to explore what it could be and act on it. For example, some teams do a virtual house tour or bring their family members in front of camera and introduce them. I have sponsored pizzas for all the team members with the sole aim of having a virtual pizza party together. So, find your team’s mojo and get it moving.

Remote Team Agreements

Working agreement between team members in an Agile setting is not new. A similar one must be put in place for running a remote team. It is all the more important to ensure that the team members know what to expect, and the team management finds it one less of an obstacle in managing remote teams.

This goes along with the previous point of building a remote team. A remote team working agreement will build the expectations and trust between the team members. It could be as simple as turning on the camera for all the meetings or something more formal like log in and log out hours. The reason behind the agreement is to ensure that the team rows the boat in one motion and the team members are aware that other team members have their backs when needed.

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