Monday 20 February 2017

Remote agile meetings in distributed environments

After years of working in distributed environments, sometimes I forget there is anything specific about it. But each time when a new person, used to traditional office environment joins the team, it becomes evident that skills for online communication actually need to be learned.
Therefore I collected tips on what I see to be important if you are new to working in remote teams, or if you just think that your online communication needs to be improved.

Know the cultures and bring differences together. 
Distributed teams in most cases involve people from geographically distant locations, so there is a good chance there are certain cultural differences in the group which may affect communication. And with agile, more than with any other way of working practices, communication and interaction between team members is important. 
I think that doing a bit of research can be beneficial - so you can understand specifics of your own cultural context first, and then also context of your teammates. Even though stereotyping is the last thing that would benefit you or your team, not knowing basic elements about what are the possible differences can also be harmful. Different cultures may have different view on what it means to be open, engaged, positive or even on time. 
Once you define zone of the differences, you will not, off course, completely change your behaviour to match remote team members, but it may happen that moderate adaptations from both sides are needed. And off course, keep it in line with agile principles!
Plan for the meetings.
When your team is distributed, organising a meeting is most often more than sending an invite. For example, it can often involve people from different time zones. So sometimes you will need to do a bit of math to find the suitable time slot.
Due to these and other practical constraints, it is a very good practice that team makes commitment statements related to meeting practices. For example, "meeting begins no later than 3mins after start time", “organiser will distribute materials for preparation minimum 1 day in advance", or whatever is important for your team. Talk to your team and define statements together.
Limit the length.
I would not recommend online sessions longer than 3 hours. From my experience, it is hard to keep "online" team focus much longer. If you have, for example, long refinements, it is better to make a few shorter than one extensive session.
Invest in good microphone, camera and speakers.
The best advice is probably to invest in good conferencing equipment. Some non-verbal communication will inevitably be lost,  so make sure this is minimized by choosing the best equipment that fits your budget.
Use the camera appropriately :)
As funny as it may sound, I think it is always worth to repeat following two things people tend to forget:
  • Turn on the camera
  • Look in the camera - at least occasionally. I see quite often people turn on the camera, but then what you see during the meeting is only top of their head or similar. Camera being turned on doesn't make much sense without eye contact.
Pay attention to hand gestures.
Don't spare energy on using a bit more (controlled) hand gestures. You can make yourself more clear and it will make up for part of the non-verbal communication "lost in the cyberspace”.
Speak up.
If you use conference room and you are not sitting near the mic be sure to speak at a bit slower pace and speak up.
Send meeting minutes.
For important meetings, such as sprint planning where the goal is defined, retrospective sessions etc., it is even more important than for the non-distributed meetings to send meeting minutes. In that way, you can confirm everyone came out of the meeting with the same understanding of what was concluded.
Experiment with tools.
There are many visual and collaboration online tools available that can make your life easier. Experiment until you find the best ones for your team. Good communication tools, online boards, planning poker tools, whiteboards, etc. can make your meetings more productive.
Bring some humour in.
Working remotely introduces some limitations, so it's good to try to bridge the distance by humour and make things more personal - having same team cups for morning coffee during the daily standup or eat cake "together" to celebrate the successfully delivered release.
Make team building.
For longer project, if project budget allows, try to organise at least one in-person meeting and team building - it will boost team's performance. Ideally, this would be done for the project kick off.

With a little more planning and engagement, everything is possible. I have been working in both remote and non-remote teams for many years and we were equally successful. I've never seen the team whose issue is actually a distance. If it seems that remote meetings do not work, it is always a sign of something more essential not being ok. 

So just think carefully through it, use these tips for overcoming the distance and you'll be just fine!