Communication is one of the most important aspects of agile development, but how does this apply to remote agile teams?
“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” – Agile Manifesto
Agile was conceived with teams working in close proximity to each other and the best way to do that is with in-person conversations.
However, this has changed over the years with advancements in collaborative technology and more team members working off-site in multiple locations. Of course, in the first half of 2020, many teams were forced to move to remote working.
Luckily, we can learn from those who have been doing it for years and adapt their best practices so that your Agile team can collaborate just as efficiently as if they were sitting beside each other in the same room.
First, let’s take a look at some of the main obstacles for remote agile teams:
- Time zones
- Building Rapport
- Developing a working culture
- Scheduling meetings or informal conversations.
Noticeably, something that is not on this list – and a common criticism of remote working in the past – is the fear of decreased productivity. This is disputed and the research shows mixed results. However, anecdotal evidence of people’s reactions to working from lockdown would suggest that teams can maintain the same level of productivity.
Importance of communication
The Agile framework acknowledges communication as one of the most important aspects of development.
Some credit Agile working as a driving force towards open-plan, collaborative office spaces. These open spaces drive informal, ‘dropping-in’ conversations where team members can provide instant feedback.
Methods of communication
Email – Old fashioned but the old reliable. Email is slow, one-way communications, and does not qualify as an interaction as defined in the Agile manifesto. Email should only be utilized to accommodate team members with low internet bandwidth.
Instant Messaging – The bare minimum for Agile communication. Instant messaging tools like Teams, Jabber, Slack, and many more applications forgo the formalities of email, bringing speed and flexibility to communication.
Within Agile, the ability to clarify queries quickly is crucial and cannot be underestimated. Instant messaging also helps non-native English speakers to provide updates without the pressure of understanding and responding to a native speaker in real-time.
Video calls – Instant messaging is obviously effective but nothing compares to the communication of body language, facial expressions to updates, or questions. Some people might have an aversion to being on camera or some people can encounter bandwidth difficulties but it should be encouraged where possible. It is also a lot quicker (provided there are no latency delays).
Kanban Boards – Few if any teams use physical boards and have already adopted a virtual board for Kanban or Scrum processes. BrightWork boards allow you to visualize and streamline your work in a modern interface.
Meeting Notes – Although documentation is contrary to Agile thinking, with less face-to-face time, keep a record of meetings. Shared documents for meeting notes and virtual whiteboards are a great way to capture ideas from brainstorming sessions while maintaining the informal tone needed.
Agile meetings, are simple by design and should be as short as possible. Only the people that need to attend are invited and the goal of an Agile meeting is to enhance productivity.
The same principle applies to remote meetings.
Project Tracking – Collaborating with a remote Agile team is much easier with a standardized project management approach that can be delivered in a single tool. This tool should track all work, issues, and risks along with providing real-time reports of agile sprints.
Tips for managing remote agile teams
Effective remote collaboration does not simply happen despite the myriad of communication tools available. The switch to remote working requires strong leadership to guide the team.
Leadership extends past the traditional scrum master with more team members taking ownership and responsibility in meetings.
Maintain regular meeting rhythms
Daily stand-ups have never been more important. These meetings keep everyone aligned on the sprint/project goals and foster collaboration.
Regular short meetings keep communication open and engage your team, keeping them connected to each other.
Set the ground rules
Ground rules need to be set on how to adapt to new tools like virtual whiteboards, instant chat, or video calls. Teams need time to adjust and transition established ceremonies into a virtual space.
As good as video-calling is, in larger groups, people will inevitably speak over each other. One way of countering this is to have the scrum master ‘chair’ the meeting or, each speaker could pass the ball by calling out the next speaker to talk.
Virtual Water Cooler
Many of the more social activities associated with shared workspaces simply do not translate into remote working. In an office setting, team members might often socialize before meetings at their desks, casual lunches, or during coffee breaks.
To nurture these team relationships, maybe more time is needed in regular meetings to allow for Netflix recommendations and general conversation before the real work begins. During a lockdown, this might be the only socializing a team is doing so it is important to foster camaraderie.
Prioritizing the backlog
Agile methodologies are focused on having a rigid backlog to pull new items from. It’s important not to underestimate how much backlog refinement happens in casual conversations both in and between meetings.
As your team transitions into working remotely, some extra backlog-refining sessions might bridge the gap until it can occur organically in your new way of working.
Single source of truth
By its very nature, a remote team is fractured but it’s important the work is not. Work that was once tracked in person or Excel now needs to be tracked within a single tool that offers transparency and ease of use for all team members.
SharePoint offers teams a shared repository for documents so items and changes never fall between the cracks. The out-of-the-box task list also is the perfect tool to develop your backlog.
BrightWork expands SharePoint’s existing functionality with features that are essential to a remote Agile team. Drag-and-drop boards allow teams to update their sprints and visualize their work in a modern, intuitive interface.
The Sprint Burn Down Charts graphically shows the expected drawdown of hours or points, and the actual accumulation of hours or points in comparison. This kind of chart makes it easy to see where the current Sprint progress is.