How to get the most out of remote teams in an agile environment

TECH TEAMS | 20 Oct 2017

Agile is a time-focused, iterative work style philosophy that allows teams of software developers to build a product step by step and deliver it on a set timeline. One main benefit of this methodology is the ability to adapt and change at any step depending on feedback, market conditions, and corporate obstacles, for example. An approach like this allows teams to react quickly to supply only relevant products to the market. Agile is most commonly used to build software however it is appearing more and more frequently as a work style within larger projects in other areas of businesses such as new product development and even marketing campaigns.


Agile origins


Agile was initially developed to be used by teams that were physically located in the same place. They worked together with the overarching idea that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” (Agile Manifesto)

However, this is no longer the case. As the digital landscape evolves, companies are adapting the way they innovate — and that commonly includes working with remote teams who are experienced in distance development and can benefit from a borderless environment within their own team. This means that not only can product management teams and stakeholders benefit from using a remote team in an agile environment, but also the remote teams themselves can be split up to take advantage of modern execution strategies without missing a beat.


Benefits of remote teams in an agile environment


Although the agile style of work was developed for teams in the same location, decentralized teams are using it to the same level of effectiveness. There are many benefits to having teams and members across multiple locations.

  • Access a greater variety and caliber of talent than if you were to search only locally – By looking further afield for partners rather than just within the local market, you can often access a wider range of talent at more competitive prices, allowing you to add value to your team for a lower investment. In some markets, the same – or better – talent can be found for a lower cost, reducing overhead.
  • Increased clarity and communication – Processes and decisions are often better documented because they need to be shared across locations by default, so a digital paper trail is created almost automatically.
  • Give your entire team a more flexible work schedule – when teams are scattered around the globe, team members have the option to work when they can/want to depending on who they need to work with on that particular day. This gives them freedom to move away from the traditional 9-5 schedule and perhaps structure their day with more flexibility and efficiency for a given task. With the potential to work at any time of the day, projects can often be completed faster than if everyone needed to be in the same location.


The challenges


Naturally, there are some drawbacks, too. The agile style of work in a decentralized environment has potential challenges brought on by the distance arrangement.

  • Time zone differences – this can be both a positive and a negative. While work can continue without pause across time zone to time zone, there may also be a lag due to order of operations, and urgent meetings cannot always be called on short notice.
  • Community feel – It is difficult to build rapport and foster a feeling of being a part of a team when the full group is not physically in the same space. This can result in cultural differences and misunderstandings sticking out when trying to create a cohesive team.
  • Miscommunications as things get lost in translation – communicating primarily over messaging apps and online workspaces leaves room for ambiguity and misunderstanding that may not happen when teams are together and can see body language and hear tone.
  • Limited window for higher-level meetings – with a shorter crossover period between teams due to time zone differences, teams may have short windows to communicate with everyone together. Prioritizing discussion points and deliverables becomes more pressing to ensure that the most important points are covered with room for feedback.


So how do you make it work?


With proper preparation and respect to a few considerations, working with distributed teams in a collective agile approach is tough to beat in the digital innovation world.

Build rapport and company culture

It turns out that a good, time-honored focus on interpersonal skills and process discipline – the nuts and bolts of collaboration – is key to driving strong results from virtual teams.
– Forbes, Building Virtual Teams: Strategies For High Performance

Nothing beats meeting each other face to face. Body language makes up 90% of our communication so having team members meet each other face to face will help to form relationships faster. There are lots of video conferencing and online messaging tools available as well if physical meetings are not possible.
While you can’t have a physical community, create an online community that promotes a culture of learning, accountability, code ownership, and an environment where team members want to interact (and do so voluntarily).

Communicate well, not necessarily often
When working remotely it’s easy for the finer details to fall through the cracks. Decision-making often happens quickly for those team members that are physically together. If only the decisions and not the rationale are shared with the rest of the team, the risk of miscommunication and waste increases. Communicating in an effective, need-to-know basis helps keep standards high and move quickly as long as expectations and instructions are crystal clear.

Ensure you have the right tools in place to help communication flow freely and transparently.
From Clubhouse, Trello, and Asana to Slack, Skype, and Telegram, there’s an array of tools and platforms out there for project management and messaging. It doesn’t really matter which tools and platforms the teams use together, but the level of effectiveness in which the team uses them does. Distributed teams must ensure that their communication and understanding is transparent and visible.

Make time for both sides to ask for feedback throughout the project.
This allows communication to remain open and ensures that each party has the opportunity to clarify anything they’re unsure of, whether the process is working and allows any issues to be resolved quickly so that work can continue at a fast, efficient clip.

Make the most out of overlapping schedules
When you have teams in multiple locations and time zones, maximizing the time that you have together is essential. Ensure that priorities are set clearly before the meeting so that important things are discussed and not missed and time is used effectively.

Be smart with meetings
Work out your optimal meeting time and duration by monitoring employees engagement throughout. If people start to disengage, consider whether meetings are too frequent or whether the topics covered are not relevant. If priorities aren’t getting covered, perhaps more time or an additional meeting is needed.
Consider rotating meeting times so that one team isn’t always affected by time zones and have to get up early or stay up late – if one team is constantly bearing a tougher burden it can potentially affect team morale.
Once each part of the project is completed, have demonstrations so that everyone involved can see where the project is at, what was done and what the end product looks like. This gives the whole team a chance to provide feedback and keeps everyone in the loop.

Have the right people in the right places
The order of the puzzle pieces matters, and this can be used to your advantage on a daily basis in terms of deliverables.If one part of the team is ahead of the rest and working on a key handover that the other members would otherwise be waiting for before moving forward, the project may progress much faster than if it were the other way around. If you have a decentralized structure, be conscious of where the teams for certain functions, departments and projects are physically located. Down the road, the way successful innovators look for talent may adapt to take advantage of this optimized approach.

By testing and observing a vast network of successful decentralized teams, Digital Knights collects insights on effective work habits and evolving methodologies that are instrumental in understanding digital transformation and collaborative work environments. However you may refer to decentralized teams (be it distributed, outsourced, remote, or something else) the best practices for an agile environment shine through when clear principles are aligned, tools are used properly, and a mutually beneficial structure is in place.

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