Working Successfully in Agile with Remote Team Members
Note: This article is part of Extended SAFe Guidance and represents official SAFe content that cannot be accessed directly from the Big Picture.
This article is a companion to Distributed PI Planning with SAFe.
COVID-19 has created an extreme situation where most employees must work from a different location, often from home. This global event has significantly altered the preconception that Agile teams must be physically located in an office for some organizations. It has already been demonstrated that employees can be highly productive even remotely.
Many industry leaders now predict a ‘new normal’ will emerge once this crisis subsides. This will likely involve some organizations reducing office space, lowering the second largest corporate expense (after labor), and positively impacting the environment by putting fewer cars on the road for the daily commute to work. Suppose this is to become the new reality. In that case, capturing the learnings and best practices from today’s extreme situation is essential to create a model for the future where a much higher percentage of the workforce includes remote workers. In addition, we all have to navigate through the current period and hopefully maintain a level of productivity and Quality that helps our employers emerge on the other side with innovative new business solutions that will carry them into an increasingly digital future.
Agile teams emphasize the benefits of face-to-face communication alongside daily collaboration . It is a fundamental tenet of agility. However, experience has shown that Agile teams can still be successful and achieve high performance even when some (or all) team members are not working in the same physical space. (Ed. It is worth noting that nothing in the Scrum Guide requires a team to be collocated ).
Whether the teams are in person or remote, recognized Agile practices, such as gaining commitment to goals during Iteration Planning, using the team sync to ensure alignment, and delivering stories throughout the Iterations, still apply. While remote teams can still commit to an Agile way of working, some differences must be considered. In the rest of this article, we’ll provide some of our experiences and other success patterns and recommendations shared by the SAFe community for staying Agile while working remotely.
The following four topics are discussed:
- Accommodating time zone differences: Multiple time zones create unique challenges that require careful consideration.
- Creating an effective working environment: Ensuring that team members have the required infrastructure and technology to support remote working.
- Supporting team collaboration: Focus activities to facilitate team building and support team interactions.
- Facilitating effective online meetings: Tips and techniques that can be applied to events during iteration execution.
1. Accommodating Time Zone Differences
When considering the impact of working remotely, we often focus on geographic distribution. Experience, however, tells us that managing multiple time zones presents a more significant challenge. The negative impact that time zones can have on team dynamics should not be understated. The first four steps on the journey to high performance, described in the Tuckman model (Figure 1), continue for as long as it takes the team to get to ‘know each other’ and understand how to work well together – building on each other’s strengths. Working across multiple time zones can reduce the amount of face time available for the team, and consequently, the stages of forming, storming, morning, and performing need more time.
Individuals Working Alone
In some teams, an individual may work alone in a specific time zone. This will mean that there will be periods each day when individuals work in complete isolation from the rest of the team (and potentially from most of the organization). Working alone for long periods can assist mental flow and reduce multiplexing. Still, it also affects the individual’s ability to integrate with the team and reduces opportunities for collaboration. This situation should be avoided, or at least reduced, as far as possible.
One recommendation is to see whether the team can adjust their working hours to increase the overlap times and opportunities for collaboration. These working hours could be periodically shifted to ensure no location experiences a tricky work-life balance for an extended period.
SAFe Tip: If one team member is working alone in a time zone, find out whether there are members from other teams in the same time zone. Look for opportunities to restructure or create a Community of Practice to bring more people together in that time zone.
The second challenge is that there may be substantial times of the day when a small number of team members will be working without access to key stakeholders, often including the Product Owner and Scrum Master/Team Coach on their team. This creates the possibility they may become blocked in their work.
One approach is team sync to check whether remote team members can effectively access all the information and resources they need to work the following day. If this is not the case, the Scrum Master/Team Coach can help them resolve this. Creating dedicated, planned interaction time for Agile Teams is something that we have had success with here at Scaled Agile, Inc. since a significant portion of our workforce is remote. Time is allocated on the calendar for each iteration for team syncs. Topics are backlogged ahead of the meeting, allowing the team to resolve any issues or get feedback on the work in process.
SAFe Tip: The time zones of the Product Owner and Scrum Master/Team Coach are essential, and a relatively central time zone will serve them both well. The Product Owner will benefit from cross-over time with the wider Product Management community. The Scrum Master/Team Coach will need significant cross-over time with as many other teams as possible.
Working Extended Hours
Another challenge with multiple time zones is that individuals who start their day earlier than others will often continue working well past the end of their day as they strive to spend as much time with the team and avoid missing out on anything critical. Although an excellent demonstration of commitment, this is not sustainable long term. Eventually, people start to burn out, and ultimately the Quality of the product, along with their health and well-being, will suffer. A similar burden will occur in reverse for team members who are compelled to start their day in the middle of the night and work through to the end of the work day in a later time zone.
It is essential for the team to explicitly state, agree to, and respect the working hours of each team member. Any key team events, such as the iteration events, should be scheduled at a time of day that does not fall outside these core working hours, or at the very least, the timing should be alternated. Hence, no one team member is continually disadvantaged.
SAFe Tip: Create a core workday window for cross-time zone events. Those will be prioritized in that window over all other work requirements. Meetings (standing and ad hoc) and other activities that do not require cross-time zone participants should move outside the core window to ensure maximum open slots.
2. Creating an Effective Working Environment
Principle 5 of the Agile Manifesto states: Build projects around motivated individuals. Please give them the environment and support they need and trust them to do the job . For remote team members, ‘environment’ covers everything from the technical and physical infrastructure to the available tooling and access to appropriate support. The following recommendations can be a checklist to ensure this is in place.
The organization must ensure that all individuals have the necessary infrastructure, which typically includes, but is not limited to:
- High bandwidth connection for audio and video communication.
- Adequate computer hardware, including webcams and headsets.
- Out-of-hours technical support, covering all required time zones.
- Access to files via a remotely accessible storage solution.
- Virtual breakout rooms (if working from a remote office location) with pre-configured audio and video conferencing.
Although these considerations are relatively apparent and generally manageable when remote team members are working from an office location, organizations need to pay attention to how they can provide these accommodations when an employee is working from home. This should also include support for providing reimbursement or direct billing for an adequate broadband connection if obtaining a higher quality connection requires an extraordinary expense (for instance, in remote geographical locations where affordable broadband is unavailable). A poor connection will limit their communication ability, impact the entire team’s experience of online events and make accessing and downloading files much slower.
Organizations use a variety of tooling in line with their requirements, vendor preferences, and security needs. Regardless of the tools chosen, six critical categories support Agile teams with remote team members, as illustrated in Table 1.
|Audio/Video Conferencing||The first and most important tool is audio and video conferencing, which is quick and easy to access, with support for both on-demand and planned interactions.|
|Instant Messaging||Use an appropriate instant messaging tool that supports a more immediate communication pattern than email. The chosen tool should also help with asynchronous information where team members can post questions ready for those currently offline to process when they come into the office and maintain a record of these conversations.
The ability to create ‘channels’ and ‘threads’ on specific topics enhances collaboration further. Some considerations on how team members should mark themselves as ‘busy’ will ensure this does not distract from the job of getting work done.
|Structured Information||Remote team members also require the alignment provided by more structured sources of information. Often this is provided by a Wiki or intranet site where, for example, team working agreements may live alongside a team definition of done.|
|Agile Lifecycle Management||Agile Lifecycle Management (ALM) tooling provides information about the team’s work. Team boards offer visibility on the current iteration alongside PI Objectives and an ART planning board that supports PI execution.|
|Collaboration Tools||Teams also need to be able to collaborate in more organic ways, much like they would using stickies and flipcharts if they were collocated. Online whiteboards and collaboration tools often mimic these physical counterparts and let the teams quickly and interactively engage in retrospectives, brainstorming, innovation activities, and more.|
Table 1. Tooling for remote work
3. Supporting Team Collaboration
As previously mentioned, team formation can take longer when the team includes remote team members, and some intentional efforts can compensate for this and support improved team collaboration. This section contains some recommendations to assist with this.
It is highly encouraged that when Agile teams are formed or new members are added, they make time for dedicated team formation activities. Ideally, this is done in person if there are opportunities for remote members to gather periodically, such as for PI Planning. Regardless, this time for team building should be repeated regularly to reinforce the benefits of spending time together.
Recommended activities during this time might include:
- Creating a team name and defining a team vision.
- Agreeing or reviewing the times and agendas for the iteration events.
- Creating folders for online files and configuring tooling to support team processes.
- Defining operating agreements and protocols for remote working.
- Collaborating on a team definition of done.
- Facilitating a retrospective to focus on a specific topic.
- Having some fun together.
SAFe Tip: If the organization regularly collocates for PI Planning, add the day after the event for the team to meet in person and continue the ongoing process of team formation alongside maturing their remote working practices.
Keeping Remote Team Members Informed
Another consideration is keeping remote team members informed on decisions across the broader organization. It seems as if there can never be too much communication about the state of the business and what matters most. To provide these updates, efforts should be made during appropriate team events, such as the Team Sync or Iteration Planning. One option we have observed working well is to extend the System Demo to include an all-hands element that provides an update on organizational operations. Another approach is creating a ‘buddy system’ where someone in the central location updates remote team members on things they may have missed. This might be done on a rotational basis.
Working agreements support the intended behaviors of distributed Agile teams. They are defined by the team based on how they want themselves to be held accountable, and they keep the Scrum Master/Team Coach in facilitating these intended behaviors. (Example working agreements will be discussed further in the sections below.)
Once defined, these working agreements should be captured and made easily accessible. The Scrum Master/Team Coach might also bring them to the team’s attention occasionally if it is felt that the team behaviors are drifting from the agreements they previously set or simply highlight them as a reminder of what the team identifies as important. Additionally, the team needs to refine these agreements continuously. One recommendation is to periodically use the Iteration Retrospectives to discuss which working agreements are working well, which might need to be adjusted, and what new working agreements might be required.
Reserving Social Time
It is essential to ensure that the time the team spends together is not only for work-related activities. There should also be opportunities to get together and discuss non-work-related issues or partake in online activities such as quizzes or interactive games – this also positively supports team formation. However, be mindful when designing fun interactions for the team. Everyone’s idea of fun differs, and people respond differently to these activities. Team members should not be made to feel uncomfortable or forced to participate if they do not want to. Getting the team to suggest activities will help avoid this situation collectively.
We have had some success with virtual coffee and lunch meetings for more regular interactions. Consider also including more relaxed conversation time built into the agenda of longer meetings, particularly those that go on for several hours.
The pairing of team members has a vital role to play. As a practice that supports Built-in Quality, pairing ensures that all work has a second pair of eyes on it, identifying opportunities for improvements and recognizing potential errors and defects. It also provides that team members spend time working together. This supports knowledge sharing and skills development and drives collaboration. It also prevents the isolation effect experienced by remote team members, highlighted previously.
SAFe Tip: Some teams have found that instituting informal design reviews for new work helps bond the group, gains buy-in and respect, and, most importantly, creates better designs.
4. Facilitating Effective Online Meetings
The discussions above have been about creating the right conditions to support remote working. This final section outlines practical recommendations for meetings and events throughout the iteration when conducted online.
Preparation is the key to successful online meetings. Some considerations:
- Define and publicize the available timebox and the discussion items that will be covered.
- Ensure any tools or documents the team plans to use are configured and available.
- Identify pre-work that could be sent out before the meeting to align the team and save time in the forum.
- Ensure instructions are clear and activities are adapted for remote participation. The use of interactive collaboration tools is essential here.
- Consider whether the meeting requires additional facilitation. (Having someone separate from the conversations to monitor incoming messages and watch for attendees raising questions can be especially useful).
SAFe Tip: Agile teams have often used templates to support idea generation and provide structure in the Iteration Retrospective. Similar approaches can be applied to all online meetings. A template, created in an online collaboration tool, will break the discussion down into a series of bite-size steps, provide the necessary prompts along the way and help the team navigate towards the intended outcomes.
Finally, it is worth remembering that working online for long periods can be extremely tiring, and regular breaks are recommended. When scheduling meetings, plan them to finish five minutes before the end of the hour or before the half-hour to build in time for much-needed breaks. (Some online meeting tools now have this feature built in.)
Below are some tips and techniques for running effective online meetings:
- Avoid repetition: Maintaining engagement is essential, and repetition makes this more difficult. As an example, mix-up the order for speaking in the team sync. One technique is to ask the person who last spoke to select the person who will talk next.
- Manage timeboxes: Communicating online takes longer than in person, so timeboxes must be actively managed. Use a timer visible to all participants, and ensure conversations do not drift off topic. Participants should also be mindful of taking too much of the airtime.
- Visualize information: Share any sources of information that team members are referring to during the meeting. For example, make sure that everyone references the issue number on the team Kanban board or row in the spreadsheet as they are talking, so others online can follow along.
- Asking questions: Asking questions in online meetings is more challenging as it is harder to interject, and communication lags can worsen this problem. The consequence is that participants listen to reply rather than listening to understand. Determine a best practice for asking questions. Consider posting them in the instant messaging tool or meeting chat, and then the person speaking can choose whether to respond immediately or come back to it later at a more appropriate time.
- Capturing notes: If notes need to be taken or actions captured, do this in an online document or tool and use online video conference tools that support transcription.
- Update information in real-time: Updating sources of information immediately means that none of the remote team members will be blocked waiting for this to be completed after the meeting. This applies equally to files that need to be shared or emails waiting to be forwarded, for example.
SAFe Tip: When only some of the team are remote, then often it works best for everyone to work in a small capacity, at least on occasion, by joining a standard conference line. This avoids individuals being the only ones to ‘dial into a meeting,’ with everyone else present in the room, and provides empathy and a common experience for all.
Working in remote Agile teams can often present significant challenges. However, many of our teams were at least partially remote, and we could build and iterate on those known patterns. Agile teams are well-positioned to adapt through their commitment to agility, teaming, and relentless improvement.
This article summarizes some of the adaptations that have emerged from our experiences of remote working and those shared with us by the SAFe community. But this is not a definitive list, and each team must commit to finding the best approach for them. What is clear is that these challenges can be overcome, and remote working does not prevent Agile teams from reaching high-performance levels.
 Manifesto for Agile Software Development. http://AgileManifesto.org/
 The Scrum Guide. https://www.scrumguides.org/docs/scrumguide/v2017/2017-Scrum-Guide-US.pdf
 Tuckman’s Stages of Team Dynamics (1977)
Last update: 26 February 2023