With COVID-19 disrupting nearly every aspect of daily life, organizations across the United States (and the world) are scrambling to figure out how to handle remote working. I’ve been a consultant for many years, and I’ve almost never worked on a team that didn’t have some sort of remote component to it.
In this blog, I’ll share 20 helpful tips to adapt your agile environment to a virtual working world where you can still be successful.
1. Set Up a Work Environment
Set up a comfortable and distraction-free environment to work in. Wear comfy clothes. Practice good ergonomics. Have good lighting, temperature controls, coffee, hydration, and anything else that you would find at your office desk (including a tub of jelly bellies or red vines).
Make sure you have all the same tools and capabilities that you would have if you were in an office building. Ensure you have reliable, high-speed internet. Use hard-wired connections versus wi-fi, if possible. If you normally work with dual monitors, make sure you have the same set-up at your remote location. Use a high-quality audio headset for calls.
2. Have a Working Agreement
When a team first forms, I always create a working agreement that the team members all agree to follow. This agreement is regularly revisited in the retrospective and, if adjustments are needed, they are made. The key is making sure that you’re all respecting the agreement that was made. This serves as a guide to the team to hold each other accountable if they’re not following the rules the team agreed to.
3. Establish Overlapping Working Hours
Find a window of business working hours that overlaps, and plan for communication/meetings during these time periods. Everyone may need to adjust and be flexible.
4. Share Your Calendar
Make sure that all team members are aware of each other’s holidays and time off. These can cause real problems if you don’t consider them, and it’s important to plan for these non-working days.
5. Use Tools to Enable Interaction
Leverage the amazing technology that exists to improve communication, including (but not limited to): video conferencing, audio conferencing, digital white-boarding, collaboration tools, instant messaging, or any other tools your team prefers (like these).
6. Prioritize Face-to-Face Conversations
One of the original principles from the Agile Manifesto is to prioritize people and interactions over processes and tools. Face-to-face is always better than just audio, and face-to-face doesn’t necessarily mean in the same physical space. Turn on the video portion of your video-conferencing tools. This lets you see the facial expressions and body language of the other participants.
7. Be Available
This is a hugely important aspect of remote working. Make sure your availability status is up to date in whatever collaboration tools you are using so people will know whether they can interrupt you or not. If you are not going to be available for a period of time during your shared working hours, let the team know in advance. If someone pings or calls you and you are available, respond! Don’t wait. This is equivalent to going over to someone’s cube and asking a question. You wouldn’t ignore someone if they were standing right in front of you; don’t do it digitally either.
8. Be Present
One of my biggest pet peeves is people who think they can multi-task. There’s no such thing. A person can only truly focus on one cognitive task at a time. So don’t try to multi-task. It doesn’t work and it’s rude to your co-workers. Instead, pay attention when people are communicating, and actually listen in order to understand. Don’t make your co-workers repeat themselves and waste everyone else’s time because you weren’t tuned in to the conversation.
9. Be Responsive
Even if you can’t answer someone right away, at least acknowledge that you received their message, and let them know when you’ll be able to respond. Communication involves sending and receiving, and if the sender doesn’t know their message has been received, they’ll be left hanging and frustrated.
Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you are no longer able to collaborate. You can use collaboration software that lets you work on the same documents at the same time as others like Google docs or Microsoft O365. If you’re also on a call together at the same time, these can be very productive sessions. Don’t let your remote status prevent you from working closely with your colleagues.
11. Stick to Your Time-Boxes
The events of Scrum are time-boxed for a reason, and this won’t change just because you are working remotely. In fact, it may even make your events run more quickly and efficiently since you can watch the clock while you’re meeting in a digital environment.
12. Record Important Sessions
Due to time zone differences and working schedules, it’s not always possible to have all relevant parties in attendance at important meetings. If your organization allows it, record those meetings and make them available for later viewing by additional stakeholders.
13. Avoid Meetings on Fridays and / or Mondays (Other Than the Daily Scrum)
Now, you should never skip the daily Scrum, but that’s not to say you can’t modify how you do it. The team I am on right now agreed to post the answers to the three Scrum questions on our collaboration tool on Fridays. It’s probably not as effective as meeting, but it’s an acceptable substitute.
Most agile teams I’ve worked on or coached have agreed to a rule that either Friday or Monday (or both) are no-meeting days (when possible). These are days that people tend to take off, and it allows the individual team members to have some dedicated focus time.
14. Allow for Focus Time
In a world run amok with meetings, it’s easy to end a day of work wondering if you did anything valuable that day. Providing for and encouraging focus time for individual team members is important. While collaboration is important, too, the most difficult cognitive work often requires concentration. If every day of the week is chopped up by meetings, it will be difficult to achieve the best results.
15. Be Proactive
If you need something and it could potentially keep you from moving forward toward accomplishing the sprint goal, don’t wait to ask. Escalate anything that could be an impediment right away. There’s no good reason to wait until the next daily Scrum to express your needs. Your team is there to support you, so lean on them (even if you can’t literally lean on them).
16. Have a Plan
Come to each meeting or event prepared with a plan but be flexible in applying it. Planning is important, but it’s more important to be responsive to the needs of others. You may even provide an agenda, but please recognize when it makes sense to stick to it versus engaging in valuable conversation about something that may not have been on the list.
17. Know Your Audience
If I’ve learned one key lesson about communication in my years of professional experience, it’s that you always need to consider who your audience is and adapt to their wants and needs. Some people like to keep the chit-chat to a minimum, while others are social butterflies who can’t stop talking. You need to understand where the other person is coming from and adapt your own style accordingly. As a consultant, I’ve worked with all kinds of people, and trust me, if you adapt yourself to your audience, you’ll have much greater success.
18. When in Doubt, Overcommunicate
It can be easy for something to get lost in translation using digital communication. More communication is better than no or low communication. If you’re unsure that something was understood by the recipient, seek confirmation or clarification to make sure they understand.
19. Streamline Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings
Each of the Scrum events has a very specific, defined purpose. None of these meetings should be skipped, or you’re not really following Scrum. That said, if you want to reduce the stop/start cycle of multiple meetings, try to schedule your events back-to-back. If one ends early, you can roll right into the next one to be most efficient with everyone’s time. What you’re trying to avoid by scheduling meetings this way is context switching. Streamlining meetings will allow your team members to have less interruptions and more focus time.
20. Model Your Requirements
Don’t just write them. For most people (especially developers), pictures are preferable to words. Write your user stories, but when building out your acceptance criteria, make sure that you are including models along with the text. The models should support the written description and provide a holistic view of the requirements for the developer.
Modeling could come in the form of digital prototypes, data models, entity relationship diagrams, use case diagrams, context diagrams, flowcharts, data dictionaries, etc. (see my previous blogs on these modeling techniques). Whoever is responsible for creating the user stories and acceptance criteria should select the best models to clearly communicate the requirements.
You Can Be Agile at Home
As we all adapt to our changing environment, it doesn’t mean you have to stop working in an agile fashion. Anyone who can work remotely can drive their organizations’ missions forward from the comfort of their own home. All it takes is a little bit of adjustment, and it will almost be like you are still in the office.