Working with Distributed Teams

I’ve coached and served as scrum master for dozens of remote teams over the years. In light of current events, I’ve posted a collation of the notes I have for helping distributed teams working effectively.

The rule is, if one person on a team is participating from a remote location, the team is a distributed team. Making distinctions such as “distributed team” vs. “fully distributed team” when some or all members of the team are working from remote locations risks marginalizing team members who are working at locations away from the home or central office. 

To help ensure that the concept of “team” remains intact during distributed team conditions, this post is intended to serve as a guide for scrum masters for how best to facilitate and monitor team interactions and performance with distributed teams. 

Scrum masters have the added burden of developing the skills within their teams for effective distributed team collaboration and communication. Distributed teams can function better than collocated teams when the team’s skills for organization and communication have been improved by necessity such that they are better positioned to function effectively as a team. 

Etiquette 

 Even with ideal conditions (i.e. plenty of bandwidth for audio and video, intra-team familiarity, clear agenda, etc.) working with distributed teams will always have a degree of asynchronous communication. Fields of vision are limited to what’s in frame for the video camera, network latency issues, and a general lack of access to in-person non-verbal cues will cause people to speak over and interrupt each other and miss-read intent more than they would during in-person meetings. To mitigate these constraints, it is important to have a well understood and practiced set of etiquette rules for distributed team meetings. 

Pre-meeting Tasks 

  • The principle challenge is to keep everyone on the team focused. Shorter, more frequent meetings are better than long meetings that invite participants to “multi-task” out of boredom. Invite essential people to the meeting. Use of a responsibility assignment matrix is a very useful tool for determining who to invite. People associated with the consulted” or “informed” roles generally don’t need to be invited to formal Scrum meetings. 
  • Communicate an agenda – however sparse – prior to the meeting. Let the team know what the purpose and objectives of the meeting are so everyone knows when they are done. Agendas are scope management tools and help keep the meeting focused. Set the expectation the everyone on the team will be aware of the agenda prior to the start of the meeting. 
  • Ensure that all the necessary equipment is in working order and that all team members have verified connectivity. Test screen sharing capabilities and application accessibility prior to the meeting. 
  • It is preferred that the scrum master host the on-line meeting so that on the rare occasion they may need to take control of the meeting by muting or bumping someone from the meeting they may do so. 
  • Set the expectation that team members will participate from a location that is free from background noise and other distractions. Joining from coffee shops or while driving is to be discouraged as they end up being distractions for the entire team. 
  • Coach the team for how to take turns in a conversation. 
  • Coach the team on how to use any mute features. 
  • The rules of common courtesy apply to on-line meetings. If we wouldn’t accept a behavior in a face-to-face meeting, it shouldn’t be accepted in an on-line meeting either. 
  • Turn off notifications from applications such as email and instant messaging. 
  • Meeting participants need to be aware of what’s in the visual and auditory background and work to anticipate and mitigate potential interruptions.

In-Progress Meeting Activities 

  • Continue to stress that team members be on time for the meeting. Set the expectation that they will join on-line several minutes early to accommodate any last-minute technical issues. 
  • Meetings serve both a practical and social purpose for distributed teams. Allow time for casual conversation (and still expect everyone to be one time) as it is critical to building and maintaining rapport among distributed team members. Small talk, catching up, sharing interesting news bits, interesting (short) stories – any of these helps make the on-line meeting a more enjoyable experience and help set a positive tone for the duration. 
  • If a team member joins a meeting late, they should not announce to the team they have arrived. Doing will potentially disrupt a conversation already in progress.  
  • When a team member needs to contribute to a conversation while others are talking, the best approach is to state, “I have a comment.” or “I have a question.” and then pause. This serves as a signal to the team that you wish to speak. Either the conversation will naturally break, or the scrum master can listen for a break and offer the team member the opportunity to speak. The natural in-person behavior is to simply start talking. With distributed teams this frequently leads to several people talking at once and a degradation in communication.  
  • Ask for the opinion of someone on the team who has not yet participated in the meeting or has been silent for a period of time. This will help keep them focused on the meeting if they know they may be asked a question. 
  • Team members should leave a comment in the meeting chat window if they need to step away from the meeting for a short time or leave the meeting. Announcing such departures tend to be disruptive, but the team will likely need to know if any team members are not absent from the meeting.
  • Remain attentive to anyone who is dominating the conversation or otherwise preventing others from contributing. 
  • For stand-ups, call out the person who is going to start the conversation. Assign that person the task of choosing the next person to speak and so on until everyone has had their turn at contributing. This will help keep each team member’s attention as they will not sure when they will be called on. Similarly (but less desirable) randomly call on team members and vary the pattern day-to-day. 
  • When conducting a meeting where only one or two people are attending remotely, ensure that both the conference room and the remote individuals are using video. This will allow for additional non-verbal cues to be included in the communication and help keep the conference room aware that one or more of their team members is attending remotely. 
  • Leverage chat for one-off conversations or bringing non-priority items to the host’s attention 
  • If video is in use, be aware of the need for patience when waiting for network latency to catch up with any shared screens. 
  • Start the meeting with everyone on video. After a few minutes for casual conversation and catching up, allow team members to switch off video to reduce bandwidth issues. 

End-of-Meeting Activities 

  • Provide a recap of what was accomplished and identify any of the goal or agenda items were not addressed. 
  • State any next steps. 
  • State any action items and the names of people responsible for completing them. Action items without assigned names are in-action items. 

Troubleshooting 

  • If a member of the team has a pattern of responding to questions with some version of “I didn’t understand the question. Can you restate it?” or they have to be prompted with “Are you there?” due to a non-response, there is a likelihood that they are not focused on the meeting and busy with something else. If the pattern is persistent, the scrum master will need to discuss this with the team member off-line. 
  • Be attentive to the introverts on the team and work to have them contribute to each meeting. Ask them for their opinion or any open-ended question that has more than a yes-no answer. 
  • The metrics a scrum master may use to assess team participation and performance will need to be more robust than the usual data-based and subjective measures. Assessing morale or the presence of intra-team conflict may not be as apparent with distributed teams. Scrum masters may need to meet virtually one-to-one with each of the team members more frequently and asses any time management or morale issues.

References

Additional Articles

How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote by Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic 

SwiftFest Boston ’19: Remote Connections: Fostering Relationships in Distributed Teams

Photo by Tanya Nevidoma on Unsplash (Edited)

The Perfect System in an Imperfect World

With apologies to Winston Churchill,

Many forms of project management have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that Scrum is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that Scrum is the worst form of project management except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Agile in general, and scrum in particular, has suffered their share of hard yet deserved knocks. But many of these complaints come from people who are expecting perfection, some panacea or magic remedy to what ails their project management world. Often they want this perfection out of the box and miss the hard work needed to implement a relatively simple set of rules and guidelines while shifting from the “old ways” of getting work done.

Consider a flock of geese.

Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years they have worked out an efficient way to migrate. Not perfect, but well adapted to the world in which they live. At the heart of this behavior are several important principles: Shared responsibility, clear communication, and coordinated effort.

Consider Agile similarly. It is a perfect system for an imperfect world. The principles found in the formation of a flock of geese can be found within the Agile Manifesto. Its foundation of assuming the need for experimentation, learning, and adaptation is central to it’s enduring success. If these values are absent from or poorly represented in an organization’s culture, the chances for sustainable success using any methodology are diminished.

Photo by Josh Massey on Unsplash