(Read up on my lecture "Successful agile projects are only possible with co-location! Yes, but..." at the 20x20 Agile Night on 12.05.2020 in Berlin)
If you read literature and blogs about agile methods and agile software development, you might think that agile work is only possible if the team shares a room or at least sits in the same location.
Sure, working this way has many advantages that have a positive effect on the (agile) team. Questions can be answered immediately and if a problem arises, help is usually not far away and Information Radiators create - almost without effort - transparency about the status of the project for all interested parties.
In short: communication is fast, simple and uncomplicated. And has the nice side effect that the relationships between the team members do not only grow and flourish on a professional level.
On the other hand, however, there have always been teams that have worked together successfully all over the world. Now, at a time when entire departments are sent to the home office within hours or days, it is worthwhile to take a look at these teams and their methods.
So here are 11+1 tips for you on how to master the challenges of distributed work. (And probably the home office has come to stay...)
Tip 1 - Do your own thing
The Internet and relevant magazines are full of best practices and success stories about which approach or which tool a successful company X used to overcome a problem and became even more successful.
These stories are very interesting and you can learn something from them, but you should always remember that these were the opportunities and challenges of this company and you have your own.
Therefore: Before you start copying others, think about what is important for your team right now and look for your own solutions. These will fit your situation and may make you and your colleagues even more successful than Company X.
Tip 2 - Think "Remote First
Maybe you know the situation: You are sitting in your home office and take part in a conference where some colleagues are sitting in the same room. You only see half of what's going on and in the worst case scenario the decisions are made there - and you sit helpless in front of the computer.
When working with distributed teams, the top priority is therefore to design all processes (from information distribution to decision-making) in such a way that colleagues who cannot be on site do not suffer any disadvantages beyond the use of the chic espresso bar. This works best if you imagine for each process step what it would be like if you were working on the road.
Tip 3 - Set clear rules for cooperation
When you share an office, the rules of cooperation often form by themselves. For distributed work, the team must make a little more effort here, otherwise confusion, misunderstandings and tensions are inevitable.
Think about communication, meetings, processes. Think about how you want to work together in which situation and how you want to document your work. Then discuss the rules and stick to them - then it will work with your remote colleagues.
Tip 4 - Give each communication channel a purpose
Without a plan for how to communicate, there will probably be a communicative constant fire on all channels and the day will blur into a single meeting. The result in the evening? Again nothing accomplished.
A solution for this: Decide on a few channels and define what they should be used for. Some useful categories would be, for example:
- The importance of communication
- Is it a meeting with many participants or a private conversation
- Does the communication take place synchronously or asynchronously
Tip 5 - Prefer asynchronous communication
Speaking of communication. If in doubt, always choose the asynchronous way. This way everyone has the same chance to get involved, especially when working in different time zones.
In addition, you are not constantly pulled out of work and can finish something in a concentrated manner.
Tip 6 - Use synchronous communication strategically
Even if you prefer asynchronous communication, some things cannot be delayed or it is necessary to communicate directly. Be it a critical malfunction in the production system or the staff meeting. In such cases synchronous communication cannot be replaced.
That means talk to each other, be creative together or work on complex problems eye to eye, but with a sense of proportion, when what is most useful.
Tip 7 - Choose the right tools
We have already talked about communication tools in the previous tips. But your toolbox is certainly more extensive and should support your activities as well as distributed working.
So also think about collaboration, task management and development tools that can make your work easier and – keyword: “cloud” - minimize media breaks in your processes. Here, too, of course, the motto is "less is more".
Tip 8 - Celebrate success together
In the home office it gets lonely very quickly and sometimes you feel unnoticed. That's why you should communicate and celebrate even small successes together. This is nice for the climate in the team and in addition each individual feels valued.
Tip 9 - For managers: Avoid micromanaging
Micromanaging, i.e. the permanent control of the work by the supervisor, who also tries to take over the thinking, is a torture for all involved already in the normal working environment.
Unfortunately, the tendency towards this behavior is increasing in distributed teams, probably as a symptom of overcompensation, since the manager no longer sees what the team is doing.
And as it's already harmful in the office, it becomes a disaster when working remotely, because the constant inquiries keep pulling employees away from their work, reinforcing the impression that they can't get anything done without the helping hand of the supervisor.
A special advice to managers: let go and limit your interventions to the scheduled meetings. Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks about how to do the worst possible job ever.
Tip 10 - Trust as a central value
This leads us directly to the next tip: The implementation of agile methods is only successful if you can trust each other within the team and become trusted. This is the more true when the team is not on site, because here you cannot see how and on what they work.
Remember: The team is responsible for its actions and for keeping its promises as best as possible. If you all stick to it, you don't have to do anything else here.
Tip 11 - Do not ignore the disadvantages of distributed working
Of course, distributed working also has some disadvantages. Here is a small selection:
- Innovation and creativity decrease when working alone
- Some colleagues are over- or underchallenged with the new way of working
- Feelings of isolation can arise
My last tip is not to ignore these disadvantages, but to address them openly in the team and find fine solutions together.
And remember the first tip – any solutions should be YOUR solutions for YOUR challenges.
Bonus tip - Meet virtually for a beer after work
Little effort and yet an all-purpose weapon – the virtual after-work beer.
Raises the mood, is good for the team climate, strengthens personal bonds in the team and tastes delicious (whether with or without alcohol)!