The imprisonment to which most of us are subjected in this period due to Covid-19, actually can bring unexpected benefits if you are able to look in the right direction, spotting new opportunities. What if you discover that teams working from remote are able to maintain same, if not better, levels of effectiveness?

Isn’t that counter-intuitive? Doesn’t success of Agile lie on face to face communication, proximity and side-by-side collaboration?

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Yes, performance and productivity not necessarily drop down inexorably, for (agile) teams, when working remotely. A simple research we conducted internally in our Agile practice, regarded dozen of teams we are working with, shown that effectiveness remained the same if not increased in some cases.

But. We know since decades that one key pillars of agile is letting people interact directly, personally and in strict proximity, avoiding waiting times, misunderstandings, and enabling better interactions and collaboration approaches.

This is why it’s always worth insisting to build co-located teams: we want to create a real change putting people together, getting rid of silos, hand-offs and old mentality.

Covid-19 is challenging us dramatically, teaching meaningful lessons and pushing to us to be creative and to explore new possibilities. One is: how to remain effective when working miles away from our companies, offices and colleagues?

Agile remote and distributed teams are, since years, an established reality. This has been reflected also in the 2019 State of Agile Survey:

While working together, face-to-face, can be desirable for agile practices, survey respondents indicated that organizations are supporting distributed teams and team members. There is no evidence of a trend toward increased co-location, as organizations continue to support and encourage team collaboration across geographic boundaries and time zones.

The survey goes on reporting some statistics:

of respondents say their organization practices agile with team members distributed (not co-located)

Now, this seems to be, for many companies and people around the world, the only way to continue to work and produce value, already. Now it’s even more important than ever before.

Importance of Culture in Distributed Remote Teams

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During one past agile conference, I had a great chat with some Agile fellows on how, some years ago, they have been able to build from scratch a company whose employees are spread across Italy and Europe, working from home: no company buildings to reach, no dedicated offices to walk in, no desks to tidy up, no stolen personal chairs to be found around, no common cafeterias where to heat lunches or coffee machines to be punched to get your money back.

…Sigh…how much we miss these things….but anyway, it’s not time to be nostalgic, here some key lessons I collected.

Once you start to work and connect from remote, some differences such as gender, age, disability, race, become less “visible”, or better, they become less important and divisive; while soft skills such as openness, ability to listen, empathy and engagement, take the scene becoming even more important compared to when working closely, co-located in the same team room.

Another interesting aspect is that the attention to culture and related behaviors is paramount, but the curious thing is that its reinforcement is somehow left to a sort of self-organization.

Companies like that one relies on strong values and principles, while strict policies and agreements are not necessarily written neither formalized. Actions and related behaviors are somehow self-regulated due to frequent interactions that distance necessitates and that technology allows, resulting in valuable continuous and repetitive stimulus for everyone, to reflect, inspect and adapt.

It seems that acceptance and belonging in remote teams is even more important

As social animals, we know that when someone is creating value in how he or she interacts with others, this will enforce its belonging to the group while, on the opposite, any dysfunctional approaches will put that person incrementally at risk to be excluded, marginalized. It seems that in remote teams, this rule is even more exasperated due to the necessity to remain effective and pragmatic in creating value, avoiding misunderstandings and waste.

Another key point regards recruitment, where the attention here is of huge importance (and sometimes maniacal). Hiring the wrong person could severely disrupt the capacity of teams to collaborate effectively “polluting” current culture, while the opposite is true as well: hiring the right person can elevate the whole organization to the next cultural maturity level.

Being very flat in their organizational structure, candidates usually pass through several interviews directly done by (senior) team members who lived the company since many years, who firstly explore closeness of person’s values to company ones, soft and behavioral attitudes and, only then, technical and hard skills.

Working from remote in those companies, thus, presents some great benefits:

  • Formalities and etiquette become less important, while real talents become more visible, exposed and “utilized”.
  • Time wastes due to commuting are avoided, while parents can better take care of children, beloved ones and their houses (…pollution of air decrease and sustainability increases, too).
  • Politics lose power, opening up to real meritocracy.

To summarize: less waste, less pollution, more value, more money.

Working in those settings, however, can be alienating if pushed too much. Why? Lack of human contacts.

You know what my Agile friends told me on this? Apart from organizing company dinners from time to time and reserving some budget for face-to-face collective training, in some key moments of their projects (or when they feel they need to meet in person), they take their cars and meet for some hours in halfway motorway service stations.

Well, my friends, since a vaccine for Covid-19 won’t be found, in addition to your computers, you will need to bring protective face masks and gloves with you.

Want your Remote Team to be effective?

In these times of uncertainties, many people who were used to work closely, are today struggling in remaining productive, looking for ways to effectively work together. Well, why not give Agile a try?

Agile naturally creates for them a context where value creation, creativity, adaptation and reciprocal trust are the main ingredients they can use to prepare their “dishes”, while the intrinsic empirical approach helps them to experiment, learn fast and quickly adapt.

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Additionally, Scrum can be thought as a great playbook that, containing the barely minimum structure (e.g. rules, roles and events), will for sure help those people to coordinate as teams and deliver value, even when work remotely.

Certainly and undeniably, it’s a big change but it’s worth trying it because results won’t be long in coming.

The post “Do not give up. Being Agile is the answer” gives some guidance on how to invest on team’s values, charters and facilitation techniques, to let you agile team become stronger.

Key aspects for Agile Distributed Teams

Teams that embraced Agile normally did that mainly because are exposed to complexity, variability, uncertainty and volatility. What any other and additional challenges distributed agile teams will find in their journeys?

Distributed agile teams are spread geographically, located in different locations, countries if not continents. Those teams face culturalcommunication and time-zone issues.

In these settings, assuring that key roles such as Scrum Masters and Product Owners are covered by energetic and inspired people, helps assuring that teams are carefully built and treated.

Additionally, the right digital technology must be used for backlogs, team agreements, boards and information radiators; they must be available to everyone, always, frequently updated to reflect reality. Two of the most important information radiators distributed teams needs to write and made explicit, are the definition of ready and definition of done.

Events need to be arranged keeping in the right account the different time-zones and, if necessary, adapting cadence to allow everyone to participate avoiding late or early hours, possibly arranging sessions in diverging converging activities, to let people breakout in sub-teams and rejoin to consolidate.

Celebrating main events and results is even more important to remote teams to let them build strong bonds and trust in each other.

Brainstorming activities are normally great moments for teams to be creative and look for solutions to complex problems. Agile teams usually do this in their rooms, sketching on whiteboards and flip-charts liberating creativity, building on each other ideas, strongly collaborating; a noble by-product of these sessions are improved trust and stronger relationships among team members. Distributed teams need to replicate these moments, choosing the right digital tools and investing some time to transform these experiments in teams’ habits.

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Furthermore, there is not anything worst than participating to an event that is poorly prepared in terms of environments, technology, timings and facilitation. Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches will need to spend the right amount of time to prepare and host these events to let teams to be effective in delivering value.

Finally, Product and Business Owners need to allocate budget to allow team members to meet in person during the team and release inceptions and other events like releasing major product increments, to continuously build the team.

And, once Covid-19 will loosen its grip on our lives, let’s use part of that budget to finally meet in person for dinner, sipping a bear. See you there…