Agile software development has revolutionized the field. In the traditional “waterfall” approach of software development, projects progressed from department to department, requiring long lead times and making late changes impossible. Organizations using Agile principles establish cross-functional teams, allowing for faster development cycles.
The creators of Agile believe that the process works best when all team members are in the same place. Co-location, they say, is ideal.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes team members are home tending to a sick child. Sometimes they are traveling on business. Sometimes, the developer who has the skills you need lives in a different country, and likes it there.
Writes Agile training authority Mark Layton: “You can still have an Agile project with a dislocated team. In fact, if I had to work with a dislocated team, I would consider using only an Agile approach because an agile approach allows me to see working functionality much sooner and limits my risk of the inevitable misunderstandings a dislocated team will experience.”
Luis Magalhães, Remote Executive Coach at Distant Job, recommends Agile-style standups for any remote team, since they are so structured. “We can’t get super fancy, so the limitations work to our advantage,” he says.
By implementing Scrum framework tactics like daily stand-ups, you’re actually giving your dislocated team the best chance to succeed.
That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. Conference calls present some unique challenges for Scrum teams.
- Because team members can’t see their colleagues and get positive feedback like smiles and head nods, they may be reluctant to share their opinions.
- Even software developers have technical issues. Slow connections or outdated software can keep calls from starting on time, or make it hard to hear what’s being said.
- Scrum boards are going to be tough to see. And what about doing the first of five?
As the scrum master, your leadership is the key. Managing a remote team means working a little harder to make up for the limitations of the technology. Here’s how:
1) Make Your Scrum Boards Visible
Every participant must be able to see the scrum boards to know what the team is working on and what’s being talked about.
At a minimum, you can take a picture of the board before the meeting and send it to the remote participant. But this won’t show them any changes that happen while the meeting is in progress.
Many of the experts we talked to recommended the collaborative project management tool Trello as an online substitute for a tangible board. Trello organizes tasks on boards, so it’s an ideal option for Scrum teams. In a pinch, you could also set something up on Google Sheets.
The best option? Screen sharing. Point a camera at the board and let everyone see it in real time. “Screen sharing over your scrum boards will help the remote staff feel connected and accountable,” says David Laubner, Head of eCommerce & Marketing at Blink Home Security. “They must pay attention when their tasks are coming up.”
2) Make Sure Everyone Gets Heard
A team member calling into a daily standup can’t signal or use body language when they want to speak. And background noise can make it hard to hear what they are saying—or even who they are. As Scrum master, you must make sure they can be heard.
“I make it a point to pause the room after a question and allow those on the phone to answer or ask questions,” says Scrum master Jacob Whitley, “I follow up with this at the end of each topic as well to make sure they get heard as much as the room does.” Jacob says he also keeps a chat window open as a way for remote participants to signal him.
These prompts keep remote participants involved, even if they don’t say anything, says Amanda Farris, Senior Software Project Manager at customer software developers The Nerdery. “Inclusive and direct prompting of remote individuals helps to ensure the rest of the team knows they are present.”
If you have people joining the call remotely, or if the entire team is remote, two simple rules will help to eliminate lost time and confusion:
- Mute yourself unless you are speaking.
- Announce your name whenever you speak.
If remote callers stay on mute, you won’t have to deal with any background noise from them. This helps keep the call on track from unexpected and uncontrollable distractions like traffic noise.
Make sure everyone announces themselves before they speak. Remember, your remote caller can’t see who is talking. If they don’t know who is talking—a tester? a designer?—they won’t know the best way to respond. Instead of listening to the person, they’ll be trying to figure out who they are.
“Have everyone use the same method of communication,” suggests Bob Hartman, founder of Agile for All and a certified Scrum trainer by Scrum Alliance. “In other words, even though five people might be in one location and three in remote locations, have everyone act like they are remote so they all face the same challenges. This helps everyone understand that it is necessary to keep everyone in the loop, not just those present in a group.”
3) Budget Extra Time
Daily stand-ups are supposed to be 15 minutes long, but if you do them remotely, budget 20 minutes instead, recommends Luis Magalhães at Distant Job. Put the extra five minutes at the start of the call to make sure everyone can be heard and can see what they need to.
Says Luis: “Even though standup participants are software engineers, their biggest issue is connection problems.”
4) Experiment With “Fist Of Five”
Fist of five is the decision-making engine of the stand-up. Unfortunately for remote teams, it is also entirely non-verbal. “No technique that relies on people not knowing each other’s responses will work with voice only,” says Hubert Smits, President & CTO of Big Orange Square, which trains manufacturers in Scrum techniques. “You have to revert to a round robin technique, but then two strong voices at the start of your checking will influence the others.”
Clearly, some ingenuity is needed. Amanda Farris of The Nerdery suggests: “I would have some sort of polling/voting tool set up where the team can submit their fist of five virtually. You could pause the call for enough time for people to vote and then get all the responses and regroup after a few minutes.”
“Have a chat window for a poll where you can do fist of five,” suggests Bob Hartman. “Other tools like private channels in an IM tool could also be used.”
Rick Patci, Scrum Master at CBRE, suggests the Planning Poker plugin for JIRA as a tool team members can use to privately share their opinions when estimating project timing.
Consensus is so important in Agile, you’ll want to experiment until you find a method that works best for your team. When you do, let us know about it in the comments!
Daily stand-ups with remote teams simply require more preparation, firmer guidance, and a little bit more time than in-person stand-ups. Still, once this brief morning ritual is over, everyone should know what they need to do for the rest of the day. That’s when your remote team really gets going. The tasks that come off the Scrum wall that day are the reward for your hard work during the morning call.