Distributed team photo

Agile ways of working with distributed teams

The pandemic has drastically changed the way we work as teams. Working from home is here to stay and teams have adapted to not working and collaborating from the same room. As offices open up in 2021, the tools and approaches used to support distributed teams in 2020 will need to be relied upon as people work from the office part time.

Marty Drill

By Marty Drill, 4 February 20214 minute read

In the past, working from home was a strategy often designed to support working parents and those with a long commute. The ability to be there for kids after school when grandparents were not available made a massive difference to both parents and children. However it could mean that the person’s ability to collaborate and participate was inadvertently ‘muted’!  

Being the only person in a meeting who was not in the room, did have its downside. Being on conference phone calls without video often meant that the person out of the room could be forgotten. The pandemic changed things and many companies invested heavily in technology and processes to ensure that teams can work effectively wherever they are. Video conferencing became a normal part of life for both parents and kids through online homeschooling. 

In traditional Agile teams, face-to-face communication has typically been seen as the most effective way to communicate. Being together in person provides everyone with: 

  • a physical presence
  • an opportunity to read body language 
  • increased eye contact
  • an increased ability to interact with each other 
  • the ability to share concepts on whiteboards or add post-it notes to the wall
  • a natural sense of whose turn it is talk, which provides a natural way to include everyone.

Interactive communication is more effective than one-way communication and we should strive to accommodate this interactivity wherever possible. When your team is working from home, another office, or frankly just about anywhere, the approach needs to change. 

Distributed teams can continue to be effective even if they are not in the same room. Continuing to have meetings and workshops is essential. It allows the team to capture a shared understanding via words and drawings in a similar way to an in-person workshop or meeting. There are a range of tools and techniques that can help.

So how do we make it work?

To support successful interactions and collaboration in distributed teams, a number of things are helpful:

  • Video calls: to ensure these are successful, make sure your client and the team all have a really good internet connection (if you are working from a new location, test it before the meeting). If necessary with new clients, test out the connection beforehand so that you know it will work. It's awkward to have 6-7 people waiting around while you're trying to make a video-conference work! If you're using the call for a workshop, make sure all participants have access to the tools you will be using to capture outputs (e.g. Miro).
  • For written outputs, the team should have access to supporting collaboration tools (e.g. wikis, google docs). The advantage of these sorts of tools is that they allow multiple people to work on creating a shared understanding of content simultaneously and they also have built-in capability to enable versions so that you can see how the content (and the team's understanding) has evolved over time. At Luminary, Confluence, Miro and Google (docs, sheets, slides) are used for this purpose.  
  • Everyone should be able to interact with a virtual 'board' of some sort to manage the team's backlog and track progress. We use Jira for all projects to allow the client-side Product Owner to interact with us effectively via a prioritised backlog that everyone in the team has visibility of.
  • The agreed 'ways of working' for the team and clients should be clear and available to everyone to view and amend as needed. At Luminary, this is via Confluence for internal teams and some clients also use Confluence for this purpose.
  • Meetings: make sure you have a clear agenda in order to achieve your desired outcome. This will help clients and team members prepare appropriately so that you can have meaningful discussions. It is sometimes helpful to designate someone as a 'scribe' so that one person can facilitate the meeting and another can take notes and actions.
  • With this in mind, the key is to communicate well, be transparent about the work, use tools to share the planning and outputs and then support each other throughout your project.

If the organisation provides the right technology, both in and out of the office, then everyone has a level playing field for participation. However, to make it work, the team must take on the attitude of ensuring that everyone can be included and heard. This can be challenging to develop in any culture, particularly when the team can have diverse backgrounds and communication styles. 

At Luminary, our Social Contract provides for how we work with each other. A social contract for a distributed team is essential to ensuring innovation and collaboration are possible. 

This post is the first in a series on Agile ways of working. See Part Two: The power of user stories.

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