Agile has always been about colocation, about direct communication, physical boards, and all the other haptic and analog moments to create value in the digital realm.
As a Professional Scrum Trainer, I strive to provide training classes without using PowerPoint or digital devices. Moreover, admittedly, I love index cards. However, times are changing. So, let’s dive into the particularities of practicing remote Agile with distributed teams.
Remote Agile cannot be reduced to running a Retrospective in Zoom, sharing your screen. However, understanding the techniques on how to do so in the most effective way for your team is the primary education any facilitator needs to acquire.
Regarding this facilitation know-how, there is good news: Remote Agile is neither complex nor chaotic; hence there are good practices to start from without the necessity to reinvent the wheel. Here we go:
- Keep sessions short: No one can effectively follow more than 3 to 4 hours of online sessions per day. Preferably, reduce the session length to 2-hour blocks per day and include frequent breaks and activities that entice the engagement of the participants. Have regular breaks to allow for leg stretching, too.
- Avoid hybrid meetings: At the moment, the first remote team member joins, everyone joins the events via “dial-in,” too, no matter whether others are co-located or not. The reason for this is that a successful meeting requires an equal distribution of airtime and bandwidth among participants. The moment you allow co-located people direct access, there will be an imbalance at the expense of the remote participants. This imbalance may lead to exclusion and diminishing the contribution of the remote folks, as they cannot join the informal conversation among the co-located people, they probably won’t be aware of body language, etc. All of this is creating a less safe situation for the remote people that typically affects their contribution.
- Be the first one: As the facilitator of an event, be up & running 5-10 minutes early to ensure, that the setup is working — remember VPN and firewall issues — and those early attendees are admitted to the event and feel appreciated.
- Working agreement: Have a working agreement that addresses the basic rules of remote agile events such as mute yourself if you are not talking, or raise your hand if you want to talk, or that the video signal is always on. If the team is working remotely all the time, adding these to the team charter is a good practice. Otherwise, agree on the rules of the game at the beginning of the meeting.
- Privacy: Discuss privacy or confidentiality issues in advance. For example, recording a video of a session might be a good idea if everyone is aware of it and not objecting. Otherwise, the idea of including everyone, giving them a voice, will fail from the start.
- Be always on: Be strict with the “video is always on” policy. If you allow avatars instead, people will hide behind them, probably becoming distracted by another task, they decide to tackle. Humans are bad at multi-tasking.
- Workbooks: Provide a briefing/workbook for your remote agile event in advance, detailing how to get access to the event technically, how to participate, its ground-rules, what preparation is expected from the participants, or providing the handouts the participants need for the planned session. Typically, there won’t be time to clarify questions around these issues during the event.
- Time zones: Be mindful of time zones. Spreading a session over more than 4 to 6 time zones is challenging.
- Noise: Make sure that attendees understand that it is vital for the success of the remote agile event that they participate from a quiet place, not the bean sack in the chill corner of the open office. No noise cancellation software is able to eliminate that level of background noise.
- Chat: Use a backchannel for group-wide and private communication, for example, the build-in chat of video-applications or Slack or MS Teams.
For the facilitator, remote agile events mean more preparation before a session and more documentation after the session. You will spend more time at your desk.