How leadership can promote a remote agile team culture

Scrum teams excel in rapidly changing complex environments and their ability to adapt and pivot to fast changing business priorities can be a huge advantage. However, the current abrupt shift from co-located to remote working would challenge even the most high performing agile team.

Co-location allows agile teams to have frequent in-person contact, quickly builds trust, simplifies team problem solving, encourages communication, and enables fast-paced feedback and decision making. This sudden transition of previously co-located agile teams to a fully remote approach may reduce that connectedness, increase inefficiency and ultimately erode the agile team culture.

So what actions can agile leaders make to support and their agile teams culture and refine their practices for remote working?

Supporting a Remote Agile Team Culture

Remote working requires a huge shift in culture and rebaselining of ways of working as an agile team. The same sense of collaboration, trust and connectedness of being co-located can be harder to sustain when not interacting face to face everyday. It take more effort to be united as a team, get to know other team members and their capabilities, onboard new ones and develop innovation and continuously improve together.

As leaders, we need to provide support teams to help them focus on outcomes when facing increasing disruption, ambiguity and challenges and cultivate a shared purpose and goal clarity that will help them reconnect and build a new remote team culture and morale.

Virtual Collaboration

The challenge for the remote agile teams is that they’ll be tempted to simply try and replicate what worked in a co-located setting. However what worked in the office may not necessarily work remotely. The trick is to work backward— start with the outcomes you are wanting to achieve and then adjust your scrum practice to the new remote ways of working situation. Good scrum practices helps teams be more efficient and and effective in innovating and delivering products to market sooner, but they become even more critical when working remotely.

There are many virtual tools on offer and most organisation have been quick to implement these. There is a small learning curve but once the agile teams adjust to using the many virtual collaboration tools such as whiteboards, instant chat, and videoconferencing , these can be tailored for greater participation at their scrum events for remote working.

Facilitating remote scrum events can have many unique challenges however keeping discussions engaging, focused on sprint goal and concise will help ensure the event doesn’t devolve into a status update by each team member.  Integrate and share content in one place for ease of collaboration and access within the scrum team and stakeholders. For virtual meeting, we have found that having someone facilitate the breakout and someone performing the  logistical functions works well.

Agile team processes are fairly informal when working in person, conversations are organic and in real time. Remote working requires more purposeful and structured communication. Consider the use of breakout rooms for smaller discussions to allow everyone to actively participate and have a voice and then bring all these ideas back to the wider group.

Over time, teams may start to have more organic conversations and collaboration but whilst teams are adjusting to the new way of working and formal facilitation and structure may become more lightweight. Working remotely, teams may need to consider how they make transparent the team discussion and  decisions and document these in a single shared workspace.

Establish ground rules or “netiqeutte” for using these new virtual tools to ensure productive communication across the medium. Look at Scrum values such as respect, openness and courage to ensure collaboration is positive and constructive and supports the team to meet  their sprint goal and meet their delivery commitments.

Team Morale

Consciously allocating time during Scrum events to allow for more personal interaction and have “video always on” as a key working rule to help maintain a face to face relationship. Encourage social activities such as quick virtual poll or quiz, coffee chats or virtual happy hours and crazy hat days where the team can relax, get to know each other and bond as they would normally over team lunches and coffee breaks.

Virtual spaces also need to be a safe place to discuss problems and raise issues so it is important to ensure that team members feel psychologically safe to voice their concerns. Team morale may suffer if remote work is negatively affecting the team.

Encourage teams to discuss issues openly about how the team is adjusting to ensure they aren’t working longer hours or overworking an at unsustainable pace. Remote working creates new challenges to keeping agile teams motivated and avoiding burnout. Working in isolation is hard and particularly so for agile teams used to face-to-face communication and frequent interpersonal engagement.

Regular check-ins and retrospectives which check-ins  are a great way to assess team morale and motivation levels, as well as how processes are  are processes working and what concerns they have can often help to identify problems early and support team to solve them. For example, I really like this check-in pattern from the Gottman institute and whilst this is an example from marriage counselling, it translates and works well in a team environment where there is increased pressure and stress due to dramatic lift and shift of working circumstances.

Leadership and Communication Approach

In the current climate of limited face to face interaction, Leaders need to be more deliberate when engaging with customers and agile teams.  Leaders may need to double down on communication and be purposeful at engaging the agile team, external customers and stakeholders. They must be transparent and reassuring in their communication about team performance and objectives with “individuals and interactions” over “processes and tools” as the main consideration.

Leaders need to show, in their tone and approach, that everyone is in this together. Ive seen some leaders doing individual check-ins with her team members throughout the week in addition to the usual sprint events. Its important to note that too much communication may overwhelm the teams working remotely with lots of new channel and mediums being used. Use the appropriate communication medium for the message and put extra emphasis on making sure they feel heard without overwhelming them further.

Conclusions

The abrupt shift from co-location to remote ways of working challenged even our best agile teams. As leaders we can help smooth the transition and support agile team’s productivity by encouraging teams to adopt a purposeful approach to sustaining an agile culture and team morale as well as re-calibrating processes to support agile objectives while working remotely.

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