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)

Clouds and Windmills

I recently resigned from the company I had been employed by for over 5 years. The reason? It was time.

During my tenure1 I had the opportunity to re-define my career several times within the organization in a way that added value and kept life productive, challenging, and rewarding. Each re-definition involved a rather extensive mind mapping exercises with hundreds of nodes to described what was working, what wasn’t working, what needed fixing, and where I believed I could add the highest value.

This past spring events prompted another iteration of this process. It began with the question “What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go to work today?”2 This is the flip of asking “What do I do at work?” The latter is a little self-serving. We all want to believe we are adding value and are earning our pay. The answer is highly filtered through biases, justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. But if in the midsts of a meeting you ask yourself, “What would be different if I were not present or otherwise not participating?”, the answer can be a little unsettling.

This time around, in addition to mind mapping skills, I was equipped with the truly inspiring work of Tanmay Vora and his sketchnote project. Buy me a beer some day and I’ll let you in on a few of my discoveries. Suffice it to say, the overall picture wasn’t good. I was getting the feeling this re-definition cycle was going to include a new employer.

A cascade of follow-on questions flowed from this iteration’s initial question. At the top:

  1. Why am I staying?
  2. Is this work aligned with my purpose?
  3. Have my purpose and life goals changed?

The answers:

  1. The paycheck
  2. No.
  3. A little.

Of course, it wasn’t this simple. The organization changed, as did I, in a myriad of ways. While exploring these questions, I was reminded of a story my Aikido teacher, Gaku Homma, would tell when describing his school. He said it was like a rope. In the beginning, it had just a few threads that joined with him to form a simple string. Not very strong. Not very obvious. But very flexible. Over time, more and more students joined his school and wove their practice into Nippon Kan’s history. Each new thread subtlety changed the character of the emerging rope. More threads, more strength, and more visibility. Eventually, an equilibrium emerges. Some of those threads stop after a few short weeks of classes, other’s (like mine) are 25 years long before they stop, and for a few their thread ends in a much more significant way.

Homma Sensi has achieved something very difficult. The threads that form Nippon Kan’s history are very strong, very obvious, and yet remain very flexible. Even so, there came a time when the right decision for me was to leave, taking with me a powerful set of skills, many good memories, and friendships. The same was true for my previous employer. Their rope is bending in a way that is misaligned with my purpose and goals. Neither good nor bad. Just different. Better to leave with many friendships intact and a strong sense of having added value to the organization during my tenure.

The world is full of opportunities. And sometimes you have to deliberately and intentionally clear all the collected clutter from your mental workspace so those opportunities have a place to land. Be attentive to moments like this before your career is remembered only as someone who yells at clouds and tilts at windmills.


1 By the numbers…

1,788 Stand-ups
1,441 Wiki/Knowledgebase Contributions
311 Sprint/Release Planning Sessions
279 Reviews
189 Retrospectives
101 Projects
31 Internal Meet-ups
22 Agile Cafés
10 Newsletters
5.5 Years
3 Distinct Job Titles
1 Wild Ride

2 My thanks to colleague Lennie Noiles and his presentation on Powerful Questions. While Lennie didn’t ask me this particular question, it was inspired by his presentation.