Maintaining Healthy Collaboration and Creativity on Remote Scrum Teams

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Working remotely on a Scrum team is becoming more and more common, even before COVID-19 forced the issue. Co-location used to be a pre-requisite for success on a Scrum team, but this is no longer the case. Neither the Scrum Guide nor the Agile Manifesto forbids remote setups. Although we believe co-located teams are more ideal than remote ones, there are methods to navigate “remote waters” and keep your team thriving without the benefit of being physically together.

The nature of a Scrum team is to work together to adapt to rapidly changing markets/environments while continuously improving. Remote work can become another challenge for your adaptability if you let it. If working remotely causes any issues to communication or creativity, the team needs to address them. Here are some ways to do that.

Business woman and man conference call video on.

Face-to-face is a Must – Embrace the Web Camera

“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Agile Manifesto

People tend to collaborate better when we have face-to-face interactions. Because the ability to see one another is so valuable, it should be required of anyone attending a virtual meeting to have their web camera on. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about this at first, but they will make adjustments if need be (find a quiet location, clean their house, add a virtual background, put on some pants, etc.) and quickly adapt. Help your team understand that if your meeting was an in-person meeting, it wouldn’t be an option to not be seen. The same should go for virtual meetings.

Perform Experiments

Experiment with the right tools and techniques for collaboration and creativity.

We all work in complex and ever-changing environments and the only way to adapt is to embrace this complexity and experiment with small batches and iterations. Experimentation is the primary tool to help with your change navigation. Your team will need to find the right tools for collaboration and creativity. On top of a video-conferencing platform, your team may want to consider online whiteboarding tools or maybe online drawing software. Try a few out and find one the team likes.

Don’t try to replicate techniques that work with in-person meetings in virtual ones. Try to understand why a technique works and build that into virtual meetings.

Experiment with how meetings are facilitated.

How your team facilitates different sized meetings is another thing to consider. Conducting a virtual meeting with 4 people is much different than with 20 people. How do you prevent people from speaking over one-another? How do you recognize when someone has a question? Is more than one person needed to facilitate? Develop and prepare for different ways to run meetings depending on the size of the audience.

Experiment with tech infrastructure.

Make sure all team members have a good internet connection. This may mean trying different rooms in their house or providing hardware such as wi-fi extenders or hotspots. Some might also need a web cam. Don’t leave a team member behind due to an infrastructure issue. Try different solutions for those in need until a reliable one is found.

For any need on your team, try different approaches. Don’t be afraid to try something new or make mistakes. Recognize what works well, what doesn’t and respond appropriately. Having environments where your team can safely experiment is paramount.

Lay Down the Ground Rules of Working Together Remotely

With a different way of collaborating, your team should develop new rules of engagement.

Consider the following items when developing regulations to work remotely:

Culture Ground Rules:

  • Set clear expectations up front and discuss them to gain alignment; if someone breaks the rules, there should be a discussion about it. Do they still make sense? Should the team adjust them?
  • Prevent the self-fulfilling prophecy – poor virtual meeting experience leads to people expecting bad meetings and then you get bad meetings; this cycle will repeat itself.
  • Attend virtual meetings with the same attention or even more as you would an in-person meeting; minimize multi-tasking.
  • Learn each other’s preferred method of making one-to-one contact.
  • Remember, socializing and having fun is important, be sure to set some time aside for this.

Process Ground Rules:

  • Write down expectations and agree on how you will hold each other accountable.
  • Be prepared; you cannot wing-it with a virtual meeting. More preparation is needed; facilitators should have their presentation materials ready to go.
  • Keep all Scrum ceremonies intact.
  • If previously using a physical board, how does the team handle a digital one?
  • Have a Plan B if something goes wrong (e.g. internet fails or laptop crashes).
  • Determine how to best handle urgent issues during work time.
  • Communicate how team members should indicate availability versus busy time.
  • Establish how to collaborate when designing; use tools that encourage collaboration and avoid ones that are one-way broadcasts.

Feet with arrows going left to right to convey confusion.

How to Avoid Chaos in Remote Scrum Teams

It’s easy for the team to slide into chaos when working remote. There are many decisions to be made and challenges that come along with an office in the guestroom. Your team needs to practice a flexible structure, much like the Scrum framework itself. Scrum lays out the must haves but leaves your team space to “flex” to what is suitable for your team and your product.

Schedule routine reality checks.

Set aside some time for reality checks of communication and transparency, especially at the beginning of your team’s journey. In a remote environment, it’s easier to miss some red flags. Does the team have a shared understanding of your flow? Do you have agreement on communication channels? Is information easily accessible and searchable for every member?

Start with what you have and what you know.

Don’t try to find the perfect solution. Start with the processes already in place and gradually improve them. It’s easier to begin on common ground. Build good habits focused on working remotely.

Building trust is essential for effective collaboration.

Have transparency among your teams and the partners you work with to ensure your team is building the right thing. In a remote environment, is feedback communicated directly to your team and not through a manager or elected primary point of contact? Is your team behaving differently in the Sprint ceremonies since you are not face-to-face? Remind each other to always assume good intentions. It’s a simple (but not easy) tool to keep your team from playing the blame game.

Remote work requires maturity and accountability.

Each team member needs to take responsibility for their work environment and take ownership of their work. Being a member of a self-organizing team requires first taking ownership of your work and then expanding it to the whole team. Make sure your team is constantly providing feedback on each other. Is your team working as much and as effectively as agreed? Leverage the daily standup. Spot issues, raise them openly to the team, understand why they happened, and find a solution together.

Start a Remote Community of Practice

A community of practice is a group of active practitioners with a common interest who share ideas, experiences, and good procedures to support each other. They are a great way to tackle concerns and questions. The community can and, if possible, should be beyond your team. The more people you have involved, the more insights and solutions will be available. Your team should treat working remotely like a product and commit to incrementally improving it with feedback and adaption.

We hope you can tap into some of these ideas to enable more effective and efficient interactions on remote teams. Adapting Scrum to a remote environment is one of the next big steps for the Scrum community. It’s already happening in a lot of organizations, regardless of a pandemic, and it’s a big challenge for teams and companies. If you would like to talk about your challenges, reach out to FarWell in the form below. We may discover a new approach together.

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