5 practices to help remote teams minimize confusion and maximize innovation

Jul 7, 2022 /

Since 2001, the term “agile team” has acquired buzz and mystique that has proliferated beyond Silicon Valley where it first started.

Agile teams are built on the core principle that flexibility — to find the most effective configuration of resources and capabilities — can provide an important competitive advantage. Agile work is built on a few key principles: Teams are small to enable fast decision-making and high productivity; teams use quick experiments to capture feedback from internal or external customers and then make decisions; and team members meet daily.

The premise of agile teams is based on the collaborators all being in the same physical location. In fact, the document that introduced and codified the concept — the Manifesto for Agile Software Development — states explicitly, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

The belief is that face-to-face communication makes teams more agile because it eliminates confusion and overhead often caused by documentation. Face-to-face conversation has been seen as the gold standard that can resolve misunderstandings on the spot in real time.

But while the agile process may seem to be incompatible with people working remotely or distributed teams, in my work I’ve seen agile processes used with globally distributed teams to great success. The agile process has also thrived in a remote format, even for in-person teams that were suddenly ordered to stay at home.

What this means: Members of remote teams and their managers can take heart. If a methodology that’s so intensely dependent on daily, in-person meetings can be transformed to remote success, then anything can. I’ve found that not only are remote agile teams not second-rate to in-person agile teams, agile principles — in some cases and with some adjustments — can actually be better served by teams who do not work face-to-face out of a common physical space.

Among the remote agile teams I studied, I found five common practices that seem to allow people to generate and maintain productive collaborative energy in a remote format.

Asking team members to jot down thoughts on a shared platform prior to group brainstorming is an important shift to make in remote agile collaboration.

Here they are:

1. Prepare alone but end in sync

Adapting agile methods to a remote context calls for combining self-directed solo tasks on one’s own schedule with real-time collaboration efforts. As a result, spending individual time in pre-work or pre-thinking on matters that previously could have been resolved in real time becomes paramount. To maintain the short and efficient meeting processes that agile approaches require, just send out a simple agenda prior to virtual meetings or ask team members to reflect on key items before convening.

Because virtual meeting platforms fail to provide the natural conditions for real-time brainstorming, asking team members to jot down thoughts on a shared platform prior to group brainstorming is an important shift to make in remote agile collaboration. As an initial step in proposing ideas, a team could use any asynchronous form of communication that it may be accustomed to, like emails, internal messaging platforms or shareable documents – anything that the rest of the team can review and comment on.

Team members can make comments in a shared document whenever a thought comes to them on their own time.

When the team convenes, members can immediately start appraising certain ideas or dive into challenges that they need to resolve rather than spend valuable time hashing out ideas in the first place.

2. Brainstorm in shared documents

Interestingly, in conversations with agile teams that have gone from in-person to remote work, I’ve heard some people express that virtual arrangements have brought their team closer to the agile ideal than collocation did. Using asynchronous collaboration tools, such as Google Docs, allows the team to constantly iterate without the guardrails or boundaries of a conventional in-person workday. Team members can make comments or suggestions in a shared document whenever a thought comes to them on their own time, rather than waiting to broach the subject with colleagues in the office during scheduled meetings or when a colleague doesn’t appear to be busy.

Shared documents can be a particularly useful way to socialize an idea and get a team to make a quick decision on it, letting people engage with the content on their own time. After everyone has had a chance to comment and offer input, the team can be convened for a virtual meeting to discuss any lingering concerns or comments. Because everyone has had a chance to communicate their thoughts in writing that the rest of the team has seen and that can be saved for future reference, coming to a decision is often much easier than hashing everything out in the same location.

3. Streamline huddles

The fulcrum of agile teams is the daily stand-up meeting. For in-person teams, it is customary to have someone present their work in the stand-up and people chime in directly on each piece of work. The effectiveness of this approach in person depends in part on people’s ability to read social cues and see that somebody else is about to speak. Clearly, that no longer works in virtual meetings.

Remote work requires new customs for these daily stand-up meetings, and a little more orchestration is needed. One option is to give each person a dedicated time to speak without interruption before handing the virtual baton to the next person. This approach eliminates the problem of people unintentionally talking over one another or waiting to read a virtual room that is not readable.

Virtual meetings also benefit from using two types of digital tools: virtual whiteboards and screen sharing.

One challenge that larger agile teams of up to 10 people encounter when working virtually is providing easy input without interrupting or speaking simultaneously. Reducing the number of people involved in a virtual huddle in the early stages of a project can help focus communication. Holding meetings with a small, cross-functional group to include, for example, one engineer, one project manager, and one designer can accelerate decision-making as well. Once the smaller group has reached some preliminaries, more people can be brought in.

Virtual meetings can be more efficient than face-to-face meetings. Although strict agile rules call for a daily meeting to last 15 minutes, in reality in-person stand-up meetings can last closer to 30 minutes. Virtual meetings, however, circumvent most of those complications. If people “arrive” early for a virtual meeting before the team is fully assembled, they can catch up on a short task such as email. Transitioning back to solo work can also be easier after a virtual meeting if one simply logs out of an application rather than having to walk out of a meeting room and back to a desk elsewhere.

Virtual meetings also benefit from using two types of digital tools that are less feasible for face-to-face meetings. The first is virtual whiteboards, which are easier to see on a screen than whiteboards in the physical office, where the view can be blocked if you’re sitting at awkward angle. The second is screen sharing, which team members can toggle for a full view of specific people’s work — much more efficient than looking over someone’s shoulder at their computer when in the office.

4. Set clear digital norms

Remote teams should establish norms that identify which digital communication platforms are most appropriate for certain forms of correspondence. For example, email may be most suitable for formal but non-urgent requests, while instant mobile messaging may be more appropriate for an informal but more urgent request.

Phone calls can be used for quick check-ins. Working remotely, using one’s personal mobile phone to call a team member becomes a replacement for the quick cubicle check-in, with slower and more laborious texting again relegated to matters that require little to no back-and-forth discussion.

Because virtual communication can occur at any hour of the day or night, whereas face-to-face interaction at an office is bounded by more standardized work hours, it’s important for managers to establish guidelines on when to communicate — and more important, when not to communicate — to preserve the boundaries between work and non-work responsibilities.

With remote teams, interactive tools can be used to gather candid real-time data. For example, during a virtual meeting, the team leader can run an anonymous poll to capture people’s opinions.

5. Solicit anonymous feedback

Agile team collaboration is predicated on the practice of honesty, trust and candid communication. Team members talk with one another rather than directing comments upstream to a supervisor or manager. The agile process has retrospective reviews built into the end of each work segment — or “sprints” — during which team members put up anonymous Post-it notes on an office wall stating what they liked about the experience, what they didn’t like, ideas sparked and things to celebrate.

However, honesty, trust and candid communication are not always easy to maintain for intimate, in-person teams and can be even more difficult for agile teams that are remote, large, numerous (or all three). Yet ongoing feedback and candid communication about team processes and dynamics are crucial.

With remote teams, interactive tools can be used to gather candid real-time data about people’s experiences. For example, during a virtual meeting, invite  attendees to submit anonymous questions, thoughts or concerns in the chat. Simultaneously, the team leader can run an anonymous poll to capture people’s opinions.

Anonymous features of digital tools allow for comments to be especially candid, which in turn can help teams learn from mistakes and improve without fear of repercussions. Team members who are unhappy about a particular issue can voice concerns through various polls. Word clouds made up of such anonymous responses can be aired in the middle of a meeting to stimulate conversation or to solicit instant feedback.

These digital tools bring opportunities that in-person interactions can inhibit since people are often hesitant to provide unfiltered thoughts and comments in a group. Across multiple agile teams, real-time feedback can inform productivity and analysis.

Excerpted from the new book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere by Tsedal Neeley. Copyright © 2021 by Tsedal Neeley. Reprinted with permission from Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

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