How Scrum teams can thrive remotely?

05/05/2020 by Paulene Duque

Teams from all over the world were caught off guard when the pandemic, COVID-19 broke in. It brought a scare not just to the economy but how businesses and teams collaborate. Most of the countries affected were brought to a lockdown, enforcing people to stay within the confines of their homes until everything is resolved. While this posed as a challenge for most businesses and teams, it has been evident that in the past five years, working from home or remote work has been both an option and alternative for business continuity. The question is - are teams prepared for it?

A misconception

Some teams who are practicing Scrum have the perception that for Scrum to be effective, the teams should be co-located. While it is mentioned in the Twelve Principles of Agile Development that face-to-face communication is most effective in relaying information, this doesn't necessarily mean co-location. Co-location means that the team is in one place together. However, this doesn't always guarantee that being in one place makes the team automatically great in communication. In my 10 years in practicing Scrum, I've seen teams who can perfectly maximize co-location in communicating issues. I've also seen some that can't make it work. Effective communication doesn't rely heavily on being in the same place, it boils down on the people working together.

Co-located teams

When I was in the corporate industry, I worked with multiple teams. During the transition from waterfall to Scrum, our transformation coach made it clear that all teams should be closely seated in one area, with the Scrum board in the middle, to foster collaboration. It helped in the beginning, I saw one of my teams chatting with each other from time to time, getting to know each other. However, when the sprint is ongoing, there is a totally different dynamic. They’re focused on their screens, idly typing their tasks away. We convene when it’s time for Daily Scrum, however, afterwards, everyone disperses and resumes their routine. I shared my feedback in our retrospective and I was surprised by the answer. One of my team members said that it was the case because they would need to focus on their task and they can always chat if they need help. That baffles me because they're sitting close to one another! After that sprint, they took my feedback to practice and some of them started reaching out. It took us three good sprints to get the team’s rhythm and enabled everyone to talk face to face.

On the other hand, another team of mine got along well since Day 1. They became good friends with the team and have established good synergy. They were very attentive during our Scrum meetings and I saw them going to their teammates’ desk if they have any questions. They even established a process of their own that helped them make their work faster.

Remote teams

After my 8-year corporate stint, I decided to work for a startup. In that engagement, I was assigned to be a Scrum Master for a team in a different region. I work from Manila (Luzon region) in the Philippines and my team was based in Iloilo City, which is located in the Visayas region. Every month, I fly and stay for a week in Iloilo to build rapport with my team. It was a challenge I did not anticipate as there were two (2) barriers - language and distance. We were able to overcome the language barrier by speaking in English. We can speak in Tagalog but some of my teams are better in expressing themselves using their local dialect; to which I can’t speak. So we came to a consensus to speak in English to bridge the gap. As for the distance, I was surprised that this didn’t become a problem. Here’s a truth - in my entire career, I was able to participate in more frequent releases in a remote scenario versus when I was in the same office as my team. And in that experience, here’s what I’ve discovered: it’s not the location, it’s the people.

How teams deliver value despite the distance

Based on my experience, here are some tips on how we were able to deliver value to our customers and practice agility even if we’re not co-located.

Commit to communicate and be transparent

When our team started out, we are all aware that we have language and distance as our challenges in collaborating. However, we made it clear from the beginning that for our engagement to work, we should be able to commit to communicate and be transparent in what’s happening on our end. We even came to a point wherein we found ourselves “over-communicating”. It was not bad at all; we’d rather over-communicate rather than assume by ourselves. Working remotely does give us freedom but we should also remember that it is also a high call for us to build trust. For a team to be successful, there should be trust; and trust can be built through communication and transparency.

Commit to your working agreement

Once we committed to communicate and be open, we decided to put it in paper. Scrum teams often create a social contract or a working agreement to state how they should work together, giving everyone an opportunity to suggest and agree on one final form to follow. In my practice, there are some organizations who opt this out, but for me, this is a critical artifact. And if you are working remotely, your team should have an established and signed off working agreement. Should the team encounter any trouble with their team dynamics, they have something they can refer to which is this artifact. Even if the team isn't in the same place, they have one set of guidelines they live by.

Commit to your common goal

Every team has a goal to achieve. In Scrum, what happens every start of sprint is the team agrees on a sprint goal. The Product Owner should state the sprint goal clearly during the meeting and the development team should have clear understanding on what needs to be done. In our team, we ensure that we keep the Daily Scrum calls sacred and practice our communication and openness agreement as we speak. We make sure to be transparent on our progress and if there are any blockers. No one goes offline without resolving an issue. Just the same, it is important that the artifacts or tools that the team is using should reflect the actual status of their progress. There are a lot of challenges revolving around keeping the “virtual” artifacts updated which is a different story altogether. However, it is imperative that the Sprint backlog, the Scrum board and Product Backlog are all updated accordingly; especially if teams are remote. These artifacts serve as the team’s source of truth. With this, it is crucial for the Scrum Master to really exercise their role in bridging the team together and reminding them of their agreement and goal; as well as the Scrum team having the maturity to honor their commitment and deliver value.

Thriving remotely

At the end of the day, it all boils down to commitment. Here’s a fundamental principle I live with -we make Agile agile. It’s not the practice of Scrum alone; it is how we harness our ability to be agile by living the values and principles as stated in the Agile Manifesto, Agile Principles and Scrum values. In short, it is a people thing. It’s how each individual in our teams practices these values and principles in their day-to-day. Once the team honors and values their commitment, no distance can stop them from delivering the best value to their customers.

Paulene Duque is an Agile coach based in Manila, Philippines focusing on Agile transformation, training and development. She believes that the best way to live life is to have agility – to find comfort in embracing change and improving everyday.
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