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Agile in Remote and Distributed Teams

Grzegorz Smialek 45f04a104a

26/02/2021 |

10 min read

Grzegorz Śmiałek

Over the last few years, personal technologies and digital connectivity advanced so fast that people started to wonder whether they really need to be together in one office to do their work. The COVID-19 pandemic answered this question by forcing people around the world to work from home due to lockdown restrictions. 

While some organizations applied only slight changes to how they worked, for others it was a real digital revolution. 

If there's anything we all learned during this time is that many of us don't need to be collocated with our colleagues on site. Individuals and teams can perform well remotely too. 

But what about agile teams? Is the same true for teams that follow agile methodologies of software development? 

Agile was invented for clustered teams that were physically located together in one office. It considers face-to-face conversations as the most efficient method for conveying information between team members. That's why early agile teams were supposed to work in close proximity. 

However, today the reality is completely different as more and more organizations rely on distributed teams. Distributed teams can work on projects around the clock, and remote recruitment means benefiting from talents in less competitive markets. 

That's why remote work isn't just a seasonal trend – it's here to stay. 

So, how does agile work in distributed teams? What can you do to help your team become more productive? Read on to find out more about setting distributed agile teams on the path to success. 


Table of contents:

  1. Agile and distributed teams
  2. Challenges of distributed agile teams
  3. Distributed agile teams - best practices


Agile and distributed teams

In its essence, agile is an adaptive software development method that offers an alternative to the traditional waterfall approach. While the latter generally works best for smaller projects with a fixed scope, agile is a great match for developing software in modern dynamically changing environments.

In the past, agile assumed that all team members would engage in iterative development under the same roof. That's why the methodology considered face-to-face communication is a key requirement for success. 

However, as organizations started facing problems like high labor costs, infrastructure investments, and lack of resources, the distributed agile team model emerged. This concept offers companies access to the global talent pool without compromising on their workflows and software development processes. 

A distributed agile team is a group of resources that reside in multiple locations to achieve a common goal, sharing an understanding of key business processes. 

By combining remote teams with agile, IT companies can scale their operations up, delivering frequent releases and high-quality code.

Challenges of distributed agile teams

Distributed teams come with many benefits. However, you should also be aware of the risks you're taking when choosing this model. The most important aspect of distributed teams is their inability to adopt the agile practice of face-to-face interactions

Other challenges that arise for distributed teams are: 

  • coordinating work across different time zones,
  • building a relationship when everyone isn't part of the same office,
  • collaboration among team members coming from different development cultures,
  • scheduling meetings or informal conversations when team members aren't all online at the same time.

The challenges we list above are pretty obvious and derive from the fact that team members don't work from one office. However, there are a few slightly more nuanced challenges that you should be aware of:

  • Team members' isolation – since team members are isolated and lack face-to-face interactions, they might struggle to see themselves as part of the group. This can give rise to other problems such as lack of motivation, poor communication, or misunderstood expectations.
  • The learning curve for different technologies – some employees might catch on faster than others. That's why managers should make sure that everyone knows how to use the digital tools available to them correctly. Scheduling formal training for essential tools and providing quick tips whenever necessary helps to solve this problem.
  • Embracing flexibility is difficult – maintaining agility among distributed teams is hard. Not everyone works the fixed 9 to 5 schedule. Employees might have completely different routines and work environments (working from home with family members present vs. working in a co-working office). They need a level of flexibility in order to adapt to the reality of remote work. And at the same time, they need help in adapting to the framework for team success. The team's agility will depend on the organization, adaptability, and availability of every team member. That's why maintaining high personal accountability helps to foster the team spirit.

Distributed agile teams - best practices

Here are a couple of best practices for improving the productivity of a distributed agile software development team:

  1. Structure your distributed team well.
  2. Choose the right equipment, tools, and workspace.
  3. Emphasize building professional relationships.
  4. Think twice about agile ceremonies.
  5. Form a coherent development culture.
  6. Take advantage of golden hours for meetings.

1. Structure your distributed team well

Today, we can talk about good software architecture when it's based on a modular design. The same is true for distributed teams. 

Every office should become self-sufficient in building a piece of technology to minimize the amount of required collaboration with teams located in other time zones. The idea is to make these distributed teams as autonomous as possible. When a project requires teams from different locations to collaborate, they can focus on APIs or integration points. 

But make sure to distribute knowledge about the code between offices. Team members will be online at different times, and this simplifies the support and maintenance tasks. For example, if the production team encounters a problem at a time when the team responsible for this part of the code is offline, another office will be able to step in and resolve this issue. Sharing the know-how gained from cross-team or cross-location code reviews is critical here.

2. Choose the right equipment, tools, and workspace

If your team is going to work remotely from different locations, you need to make sure that people are equipped with the right set up. 

Verify that team members have everything they need to be comfortable, productive, and focused. 

Help them to create a space where they are least likely to get distracted, especially if they work from home. If you discover that an employee has poor connectivity, you might need to relocate their wireless router or provide them with a wired connection.

3. Emphasize building professional relationships 

Building a solid rapport across the team is a recipe for success. This is especially true for agile programs. 

Personal connection minimizes missed expectations, boosts team morale, builds trust between team members, and assists them in self-organization. 

Make sure that team members have the time to get to know each other.

  • Assist them in developing these personal connections by offering opportunities to share their personality. For example, they can introduce themselves on your messaging tool or an internal wiki page.
  • Organize frequent face-to-face meetings, including both videoconferencing and trips to remote offices.
  • Most people still consider videoconferencing as a scheduled time. Instead, build a culture of using video chat for spontaneous and casual conversations.
  • Use instant messaging tools like Slack to help people easily communicate with one another.
  • Encourage team members to meet on weekly one-on-one video chat sessions that are less formal and can facilitate casual knowledge sharing.

4. Think twice about agile ceremonies

Teams that shift to remote collaboration shouldn't be forced to redesign their process or get rid of agile ceremonies altogether. However, team distribution should inspire the Scrum Master to rethink how to carry out the meetings so that they remain productive. This, of course, depends on the team size and available collaboration tools. 

For example, teams used to looking over the scrum board during the daily standup meeting will have to come up with a digital version of that ceremony. If your team is small and experienced relatively few roadblocks on its work on user stories in the past, replacing a standup meeting with a scheduled chat gathering could be enough. 

You can also use digital whiteboard tools for design sessions and sprint planning. During sprint reviews, select one person to share their screen. Use video conferencing tools for commitment meetings. Take advantage of surveys or low-code applications to capture feedback during retrospectives.

5. Form a coherent development culture

Teams working across various geographies need to develop a common development culture that helps to resolve issues before they even arise. Here are some best practices for doing that when moving from a co-located office to a distributed culture.

  • Transparent decision-making – communication becomes much harder in distributed teams, so you need to clarify that when decisions are made, they need to be communicated to other team members. This is especially true for important decisions that are made in hallway conversations, informal local meetings, or individual team members.
  • Overcommunication – When transitioning to a distributed culture, overcommunicate until you find the right balance. Instead of using email that can quickly become cluttered, take advantage of a content management system where team members can easily browse for updates across the team. Create other channels for teams and individuals to communicate and keep up with all the updates. Consistent development environment – build it across the team to help its members collaborate and track down issues.
  • Set people on the path to success from day one – create a 'Getting started' guide to remove the first-day friction and automate the setup as much as possible.
  • Define 'done' – when working between offices, team members might understand work as 'done' in different ways. You need to develop clear standards around the definition of done to manage expectations and help teams build better rapport. Eliminate ambiguity and make it clear what it means when something is done – for example, it can mean that the code was written, pull requests created, code was reviewed, tested, and merged into the appropriate branch.
  • Provide clear guidelines for bug reports – also, create troubleshooting how-to's to help teams track down an issue and deal with it quickly.
  • Increase the level of documentation in the team – agile development teams prioritize working code over upfront documentation. But documenting code, architecture, and APIs is still important. Remote teams might benefit a lot from increased documentation standards. For example, documenting the code could replace some of the implementation discussions around how a given model works.

6. Take advantage of golden hours for meetings

When working remotely, meetings might cause pain to one team. For example, you wouldn't want the team to get up at 5 AM for a standup meeting, right? That's why it's a good idea to rotate the meeting time so that it becomes a shared burden instead of continually subjecting one of the teams to crazy hours. 

Make sure to monitor the team's engagement during standup sessions. If you notice that the team isn't getting a lot out of it, team members are inevitably going to disengage and stop listening. Remember that standup meetings don't need to happen daily. You can meet just a few times a week and use other days for organizing local standups. And it doesn't have to be a morning routine either – it can be whatever time of the day's most convenient for everyone on that day.

Agile software development in remote reality - conclusion

In modern organizations, teams often need to adapt and learn how to share work between different offices, collaborate effectively, and foster consistent company culture across geographies. But the most productive teams seek successful practices across all locations and always optimize their agile processes. 

Even teams that work in a single office can benefit by operating like a distributed team. They might become distributed from time to time, just like during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business travel might also take team members outside of the office. So could working from home, which is an excellent strategy to help employees in managing their work-life balance. 

By preparing your teams for carrying on agile processes while being distributed, you'll help them to embrace transparency and structure that scales more efficiently – helping your business to face the challenges of the future. And if you’re looking to boost your software development teams with remote engineers, don’t hesitate to contact us!

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Grzegorz Smialek 45f04a104a

Grzegorz Śmiałek

Managing Director at Codete. He is a Master of Law and has a Harvard Business School degree. A business leader with extensive experience in finance and team management. Specialist in startups and business development.

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