Article

Remote Agile: Observations on productivity for less mature teams

Tai Ching,

Vice President, Banking and Financial Services

Published: December 7, 2020

The effects of COVID-19 have forced the accelerated adoption of fully remote teams, a trend that is likely to continue well beyond the impact of this pandemic. Employers around the world have started to embrace the model, with companies such as Atlassian, Facebook and Twitter announcing that employees can work from home permanently. Many employers are reporting increases in productivity by 44%1.

Software engineering using Agile has typically focused on co-located teams. While many modern Agile engineering teams already have some element of distributed operations, the pandemic has forced adoption of a fully distributed approach.

At this time, the approaches to improving productivity and team engagement for a remote workforce are fairly well understood. This article considers some of the practical observations (that build on common knowledge and lessons learned) as well potential approaches to tune remote Agile team performance. One of the key observations has been that the productivity gains or losses from remote operations are acutely amplified by the maturity of the Agile team, although there are techniques and tools to overcome many of these.

Remote Agile Graphic

The rest of this article explores several observations related to how Agile team maturity and productivity are impacted by remote operations, especially for teams that are less mature. Many of the suggestions are related to reducing the productivity gap for less mature Agile teams.

Observation 1: Limited informal learning when working remote

Engineers learn a huge amount from their peers through informal and sometimes unintentional interactions. For example:

  • Watching a more experienced engineer debug code can teach a huge amount about the code base and common do’s and don’ts.
  • The watercooler and coffee break discussions where informal discussions about choices of tools, algorithms, and technical approaches take place are critical for building team knowledge.
  • Overhearing a colleague’s discussion about the one person in production support who is the only one that knows the exact production reference data needed to reproduce defects.

This can be difficult to replicate in a fully remote model. Less mature Agile teams with more narrowly focused expertise and lower relative levels of product knowledge will suffer more from the lack of informal learning.

Approaches to improve maturity in this area:

  • Enable more opportunities for informal learning. For example, peer code reviews with online screen shares can help senior team mentor more junior resources.
  • Team chat and messaging tools have to be encouraged to fill in the watercooler conversations, especially for 1-1 discussions.
  • Documenting processes and best practices plays a huge role in enabling the team for productivity. At a minimum use a team chat or forum to capture information in an unstructured way.
  • Setup official learning time so that team members can ask questions across the team. Document the solutions!

Observation 2: Accountability and trust are hard when you can’t see each other

One of the biggest challenges with fully remote teams is that the lack of visibility and line of sight can lead to a lack of trust and accountability. This is amplified when the team members do not have a history of working together. This can lead to a situation when a lot of time is spent on generating reports, following up on activities and trying to micromanage daily activities at a much more granular level than the daily standup, which impacts team performance.

Approaches to improve maturity in this area:

  • Clarify and validate the definition of done across the team. Ensure that work items are tracked against the definition of done in a single source. Use that single source for all discussion on work progress to avoid low value status checking and reporting activities.
  • Focus the team on outcomes. The outcomes must be encoded in the reporting.
  • Use tools that gamify the teams output and contributions and ensure access and visibility to the tools

Observation 3: Team chat and instant messaging are great, but they can cause implicit bottlenecks

Team chat and instant messaging is a critical tool for remote teams. However, for less mature teams, team chat can cause implicit bottlenecks. Team chat channels can quickly become flooded with questions and requests, which in turn cause bottlenecks for the more experienced team members who are trying to respond. On the flip side, the requestors are unclear whether they are even going to get responses to some of their questions.

Potential approaches:

  • Setup windows of time where the experts are dedicated to fielding questions from the rest of the team. Inform the teams that they should prioritize their requests.
  • For urgent items, a call is quicker than waiting for a response on the team channel.
  • Set up fallback or secondary experts to help less experienced team members.
  • Set up a process where every request on team chat is tagged with an urgency.

Observation 4: Non-work interactions can help the team member engage

Mature teams typically have a strong sense of team identity, engagement and personal relationships that strengthen collaboration. This can be difficult to foster in a less mature team that is working remotely. While there is a lot of data on the importance of non-work interactions, getting team members to interact dynamically outside of work can be a challenge. The challenge is to make social time fun, dynamic and engaging for all participants instead of being treated as an extension of work.

Some ideas that have had generally good results:

  • Take social time in bite-sized chunks. For example, use the last five minutes of each stand-up to have a team member (chosen in turn) discuss a topic of their interest. The topics can be pre-selected through a team exercise.
  • Creating an #offwork channel where team members can post about themselves when they are not working.
  • Video and face to face interactions can also play a huge role in helping team members engage better. However, be mindful of how that interrupts work and life at home.

Conclusion

Agile teams need to be aware of the performance penalties associated with remote operations. Increasing the team’s Agile maturity should be a priority, however there are also several ways to reduce the productivity decrease associated with remote operations for less mature teams. These approaches can be applied on top of all the typical strategies associated with increasing a remote team’s performance.

References

[1] - https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html

Tai Ching

Tai Ching

Vice President, Banking and Financial Services

Tai Ching is a technologist who enjoys bringing together technology, architecture, teams and processes to deliver successful engineering programs. Across 20 years of technology consulting and delivery experience, Tai has managed several large scale global delivery programs for clients in multiple domains including ISVs and SaaS, hospitality, manufacturing and banking and financial services.

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