How to coordinate #remote teams (and improve collaboration in #covid19 times)

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

We started a survey to collect your biggest challenges when it comes to transitioning to remote work. You can submit your answers here.

From that survey, the early results are conclusive, one of the biggest challenges you are facing right now is to help your teams coordinate their work, and collaborate effectively after transitioning to #Remote work.

So, to help you adapt to this new #Remote work reality, we collected the following strategies and tools for helping #Remote teams coordinate and collaborate effectively.

Scrum is #Remote ready, especially this one tool…

Read on for the full list…

Scrum already has one of the most important practices for #Remote teams. That’s the Daily Standup or Daily Meeting. Three simple questions, done in 15 min or less (when facilitated correctly) that get everybody on the same page for a very small investment. When compared with the traditional “weekly status meeting” that many of us are familiar with, the Daily Standup is a breath of fresh air, and a very effective collaboration and coordination tool.

There’s a caveat though. Many still facilitate these daily check-ins as if they were status meetings. That’s not good. What that happens, daily status meetings are repetitive and feel like a burden on the team members that just want to get on with their work. If your daily check-ins feel like a drag, here’s a tip for you: change the daily meeting questions!

No, you don’t need to follow the original questions religiously, you can (and should) experiment with different questions that help the teams collaborate effectively.

Here’s my suggestion:

  1. Is the Sprint Goal clear for you? If not, what is unclear? (and give some time for the conversation to converge on a clear Sprint Goal, then write it down in a public place)
  2. Do you believe that we can reach our Sprint Goal before the end of the Sprint? If not, what might prevent that? (again, give space for the conversation to converge into concrete actions)
  3. Do you need any help, from other team members or other people outside the team to be able to reach the Sprint Goal?

Questions #1 and #2 are team questions. Team questions are good because they re-enforce the need to collaborate to reach a goal.

Question #1 is goal-centric. When goals are clear, communication and collaboration flow more easily. Shared goals are also a catalyst for collaboration. Use that to your advantage.

We have an episode with Jeff Campbell on how to help teams collaborate around a goal. Listen to it for further tips on the benefits of goal-centric ways of working.

Do more of what works: 2 check-ins as a way to help teams get familiar with #Remote collaboration and coordination

Sometimes, however, one daily check-in is not enough. Many things happen during the day, and (just like at the office), team members get interrupted with work requests from outside the team. Be sure to mention this to your team members: it is especially important to take work only from the backlog when working #Remote.

If you haven’t yet defined a team agreement with your #Remote team, now is a good time to define it, and make sure that you emphasize this rule: we only take work from the backlog, or remove impediments to the work items from the backlog.

The best way to know if team members are being interrupted from work that comes via Slack/chat/email/sms/whatsapp is to have 2 check-ins/day. One at the start of the working day to get everybody in synch and aligned, and another one at the end of the day to take stock on what happened that day.

However, I’d recommend having the second (or first) daily check-in as a chat message on the team channel answering simple questions like the ones listed above or:

  • What interrupted me from the backlog work today?

A technique I’ve used in the past is a “virtual coffee break” mid-afternoon, to get people to talk to each other but without making it a formal meeting. Pro tip: information also gets shared in informal gatherings!

Pro tip 2: be mindful of different schedules that people may have now that they are working #Remote. Some team members may start work early or work late because of needing to spend time with their children.

Make sure all ceremonies are in the calendar and accepted by team members

Scrum has a very specific set of ceremonies to help teams share knowledge and collaborate with each other. These are Sprint Planning, Refinement/Grooming, Daily Standups/Daily Scrum, Sprint Retrospective and Sprint Demo & Review.

It is especially important to make sure that the team members (and stakeholders) have those meetings scheduled in their calendar and have accepted them. It’s easy to forget about those important collaboration and coordination sessions when we are in the zone, at home, and no one taps us on our shoulder to ask: “Hey, are you coming to the Refinement meeting?”

As a Scrum Master, it is also important to bring some elements to those meetings that help people bond with each other. If meetings are perceived as only “work”, and not community building, they will become boring, and disengaging. Pro tip: have a few check-in exercises ready for each of those meetings. Something simple such as: “What was the most annoying thing your spouse or child did when you were on a video call?” (we all have that now).

Lisette Sutherland has collected a list of 44 Ice Breakers for online meetings, make sure to check those out for inspiration.

Final tip, and Ninja level trick…

Now, if you ask me what is the single biggest tip I have, I’d have to say that it has nothing to do with meetings.

In Agile software development, we focus on feedback loops, and especially the shorter the better!

So, the obvious conclusion is: when it is hard to get your team to collaborate, move to a shorter feedback loop. In practice, this means that you may need to move to 1-week sprints (if previously you had two), until you get those collaboration practices down to perfection.

The shorter feedback loops won’t help collaboration directly, but it will highlight problems faster, which helps you focus on solving the most pressing ones.

As Martin Fowler put it in this blog post: Frequency Reduces Difficulty. 

Oh! And one more thing…

The most important tip, however, is something else…

There’s another aspect we didn’t yet touch upon here. Collaboration requires trust and functional relationships between team members. And there’s one rule/heuristic that must be front and center for you and your team to build that trust. That heuristic is the Prime Directive. It applies to retrospectives, and it applies to daily work:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

–Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

As Scrum Masters, our domain of expertise is collaboration. That expertise is even more important for #Remote teams.

Stay focused on the goal, stay focused on collaboration.

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