The agile method and its various flavors have been helping software development teams increase performance for decades. But there are some best practices that almost every remote team can use to get results.
Even as things progress to something resembling “normal”, it’s clear that aspects of remote work will remain in most businesses long after the pandemic has passed. Therefore, it’s time to start thinking about how to optimize the performance of remote teams.
The agile method and its various flavors have been helping software development teams increase performance for decades. Agile teams are nimbler, more responsive, and more accountable — all traits remote teams need to thrive. And, according to the Harvard Business Review, it has spread out of the development realm into other departments, from research and development to marketing.
Regardless of the project or department, there are some overarching best practices that almost every remote team can use to get results.
The basic “unit of measurement” in agile is a sprint. Once the team decides a task, which may be anything from organizing a new marketing campaign to adding a requested feature to a product, they devote a week to a month solely to getting the task completed. That time is called a sprint.
In the “old days”, teams would lock themselves in a room during a sprint. That’s not possible for a remote team, but through videoconferencing, shared screens, and remote control, you can accomplish the same feeling of collaboration and focus.
It’s no secret that remote work can be full of distractions, especially in these complicated times. Boiling down goals into manageable tasks and then remaining focused on that task for a relatively brief period can help keep a remote team from being pulled in too many directions. In fact, that’s the whole reason for sprints — even in the office.
Insulate Teams from Distraction
Unexpected ad hoc requests (“Can you just knock this out real quick?”) and unnecessary meetings quickly derail sprints and, by extension, the agile method. High-performing agile organizations often use a process facilitator (often a certified “scrum master”) to help not only keep teams on track during their sprints, but to insulate the team from outside influences during that time.
Being a scrum master has become a viable (and lucrative) career path, but the concept of shielding a team for them to accomplish their goals doesn’t require one. It just requires a manager who knows what’s going on internally and externally and can prioritize tasks. The ability to say “no” goes a long way. On the individual contributor’s level, all it takes is clearance to turn off email notifications, flick on “Do Not Disturb” for anyone outside the team, and the self-constraint not to get roped into the “crisis du jour”.
Agile teams try to avoid meetings as much as possible in favor of “ceremonies” with defined purposes within the sprint. The most common of these is the stand-up. Every morning, or at least every other morning, the team spends only 10-15 minutes total describing their goals for the day, any barriers or challenges that have been holding them back, and how the team can most efficiently use the upcoming time. The time limit is rigid, otherwise the stand-up will turn into just another endless, unnecessary meeting. In fact, that’s why they’re called stand-ups: people are less likely to dawdle if they are standing during a meeting.
We’ve discussed the importance of systematic communication in remote work in a previous blog post, but it bears repeating in this context. Morning stand-ups are also a significant way for management to gain visibility into the team’s production and eliminate some fears executives still hold about lost productivity when working remotely.
Remember, this isn’t social time. Get in, get everyone on the same page, and get out. If everyone must physically stand during the video call to get this done, so be it.
Have a nice (virtual) happy hour once you finish the sprint.
Back in the office, some agile teams were lucky enough to have a dedicated room for their sprints, dominated by a board used to keep track of the status of tasks as they moved from planned to in progress to complete. The low-tech approach often took the form of Post-It notes on a white board, and they were critical to keeping everyone on the same page and working efficiently.
Obviously, the low-tech approach doesn’t work remotely. But teams should keep visibility into what everyone is doing. Whether that is through a simple spreadsheet or a dedicated application like Confluence Jira, or Wrike, a virtual status board can make everything, especially stand-ups, more effective. Don’t forget to turn on notifications for status changes since you won’t be staring at the board all day.
After a sprint is another ceremony (sometimes broken into two), a review and a retrospective or “retro.” Just like other ceremonies, it has a purpose: to identify ways the next sprint can be better. A review goes over the work the team performed, often with external stakeholders. A retro is all about how the team can work better interpersonally.
Team dynamics change, especially in a time where communication often lacks the social cues that working together in-person provides. It’s important to regularly check in on the health of the team. This make videoconferencing the perfect (remote) vehicle for this ceremony. Just make sure to follow some videoconferencing norms or your retro can go off the rails.
The agile methodology can be as simple or as complex as you want. People have made careers out of it. But every good methodology is grounded in common sense applications of necessary tasks. These practices, whether or not you describe them as “agile,” can help your remote team be more efficient and get along better in the face of challenges most of us haven’t seen before.