In recent months the COVID-19 crisis has forced our teams around the world into lockdown and remote work. This has challenged us in a myriad of ways, not only personally and professionally, but methodologically, too. Case in point: we’ve had to adapt our Agile method to this new remote and working from home reality.
In doing so, our teams have learnt some lessons and adopted some strategies for success that have helped up continue to deliver for our clients and maintain the cohesion of our squads. In this article, I outline five strategies for maintaining and mastering an Agile development approach with fully remote teams so that you, too, can experience this success.
1. Nail your conference call tools
There are dozens of different ways to connect with your team and it can sometime seem that every client has their own preferred conference calling tool. You jump from Slack to Microsoft Teams, over to Skype and then to Skype for Business. No matter the tool you use, here are some ways to make the most of your video conferencing:
- Master Your Audio: Mute your microphone when you’re not speaking, use a headset to mismatched audio echo cancellation (AEC) that might cancel your own voice.
- Master Sharing: Most conference calling options include screen sharing options, make sure you practice with the specific UI of the tool you’ll use before the call begins. You’ll probably be juggling multiple screens and a dozen apps, browser tabs, and windows, and it’s easy to make an error. Some options such as Slack allow you to share your entire desktop but comes equipped with a virtual pencil to point out and underline what you are sharing. Other tools, including Teams, allow you to share a specific window but you’ll need to stop and share again each time you want to change the app or website window you’re focused on.
- Master Your Notifications: It might seem obvious but an unexpected and embarrassing notification popping up in a conference call is the most common problem I’ve encountered in the dozens of video conferences I’ve participated in over the last three months of COVID-19 lockdown. A not-so-funny joke shared on Slack by a colleague or a way-too-personal medical appointment reminder is not something you want to share with the world, so muting your notifications is a must. Muting children in the background? That’s more difficult…
- Master Your Personal Presentation: When you’re perfectly comfortable with your hair, lighting, background, and camera quality then – yes – share away. If you’re not feeling comfortable, however, don’t be afraid to go audio-only: not only will you feel better but you’ll avoid distracting others on the call, too.
- Ready to Level Up? Do it all on Linux: While all of the video conferencing tools work just fine on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, few are optimized for Linux. When even a Firefox or Safari browser is enough to flummox an otherwise useful tool, porting that same tool to Linux can be a nightmare. It’s possible, of course, but it’ll take some work and a lot of time, too. But we at Witekio do love a challenge…
In the end every conference calling option has its own advantages and drawbacks, you’ve just need to experience them and make your choice. Once you find something that works for you, your only remaining challenge is to remember where the next meeting is and just where the oh-so-important link that your colleague shared last time around can be found.
2. Respect rituals, ALL of the rituals
The Agile methodology is built on rituals. There’s the sprint planning and its engagement between the development team, the scrum master, and the product owner. There’s the daily stand up and the core questions of what was completed yesterday, what is being worked on today, and what is blocking progress. There’s the iteration review where the work of the team is presented, even showcased in a demo to stakeholders inside and outside the company. Finally, there is the retrospective where what worked, what didn’t work, and what can be improved is laid bare.
When teams are suddenly translated into remote mode there may be a temptation to let some of those Agile rituals fall away. After all, it’s far easier to skip out on a daily stand up when the team is distributed, sitting down, and relying on webcams to communicate.
Yet these rituals are essential for Agile teams whether they are collocated in an office or working from homes under a COVID-19 related lockdown. The daily stand up? That’s vital for keeping the team aligned and on-track, especially when you can’t just walk across the room to interact with the rest of the squad. Reviews become even more important for communicating progress to stakeholders and giving a vision to the project and diving into the details through Poker Planning is essential. Retrospectives, too, are a chance not only to improve the work of the team but to improve the remote work of the team and should never be skipped.
Maintaining rituals despite the temptation to skip them is a way to keep your Agile squad on track and delivering on time.
3. Find the right software tools…
Agile has been widely adopted across the software development industry and there are a range of tools that exist to help support the Agile method in practice. Though most of these tools are designed to work well for in-person and on-premise teamwork, they are equally as useful for remote teams. Indeed, by embracing the right tools you can ensure that your Agile teams stays on track, communicates effectively, and that projects remain coherent and documented.
At Witekio there are three software tools that we’ve found particularly effective for helping our distributed Agile teams stay connected and on track.
To start with, there’s the obvious one: Jira. Jira was built for Agile and its works perfectly well no matter whether a team is working in the same room or entirely different countries. Our engineers were comfortable using Jira before COVID-19 forced us to move to remote work, and since making that move, they’ve continued to rely on Jira to track bugs and issues and manage Agile projects.
From the all-encompassing Jira to something more specific: PlanITPoker. This tool is great for Poker planning and helps us to plan our sprints and estimate workloads effectively.
When it comes to retrospectives, our tool of choice is Parabol. Parabol is fun to use and perfectly suited to retrospectives. During the first phase of the retrospective everyone can create virtual post-it notes for anchors, winds, and objectives without seeing other contributions. The second phase is great, too, as Parabol allows you to see all contributions and gather the post-it notes that go together. Then, in a third phase, the tool allows each contributor to distribute five votes for ideas to implement. The cherry on the top? The retrospective report is easy to create. Parabol is certainly a tool we will continue to use even when back to face-to-face meetings.
4. …And the right hardware, too
An Agile team is a team, and a team helps each other.
In the office you can rely on your team to lend a hand when it comes to hardware. Need to borrow something? Ask the question and it’s done. Something breaks? It’s a cinch to search around the office with a teammate and find a solution.
But when your team is distributed this becomes more difficult – and when your team is both distributed and on government-enforced lockdown, it’s doubly tough.
When you’re an embedded development company access to hardware is more vital than ever. That’s why it is so important for leaders to ensure that the hardware of their teams is up to scratch, and that plans for the inevitable problems and hardware failures are in place from the start.
But just imagine: how would you deal with a unique prototype of a next-gen embedded sensor that your six-person team of developers is working on for a six-month period? With a distributed team you can’t all be in the same place as the prototype, nor is it always easy for the prototype to be moved from one team member to another.
Ideally you will be able to organize for each team member to have access to their own hardware as well as spare components for the eventual breakages. If this is impossible then it will be necessary to review how the organization tests and retests the hardware.
Perhaps your team can be creative and develop a remote testing solution. That’s certainly something that we embraced at Witekio where we installed webcams and remote controls to test the embedded software of a unique prototype that could not be easily shared.
5. Be prepared to expend twice your normal energy at first
It’s sad but true: you need to spend more time preparing for a remote meeting than you do preparing for an in-person meeting with your Agile team.
At Witekio we’ve found that our preparation, especially as we adapted to our remote work environment, often came out at around twice what we’d do for the equivalent meeting face-to-face. This is the case for standups and retrospectives alike – last minute preparation just doesn’t cut it when this could be one of the only times during the day that you get all of the team talking.
You should also count on expending more time and energy on reviewing priorities, clarifying demands, and the giving and receiving of feedback. Without the in-person social cues that make face-to-face discussions easier than remote chats or conference calls, you’ll need to allow yourself time to confirm and re-confirm that your words are understood and your understanding correct.
You’ll need to allow some time for your team to talk about what is on their collective mind outside of work, too. Remember that there is no virtual coffee machine and no virtual break room so discussions of pressing out-of-work matters (like the COVID-19 virus, for example) is going to come up in your meetings. Yes, it’s off track, but teams are composed of people and people need to discuss more than just their jobs when they go to work.
Finally, you’ll spend more time working with your teams on constraints that are unique to remote and distributed work. There are fewer childcare and housework constraints when people head into the office to work, and team leaders will find that they will need to devote some time every day to helping their team manage their time in light of these constraints.
These last few months of lockdown have proved that the Agile development method is more than capable of being sustained by remote teams. At Witekio we never abandoned our Agile methods, but we did adapt them to fit the new reality forced on the team by the COVID-19 crisis.
Working on embedded development has been a challenge but it has also forced us to be creative and develop remote-working solutions that will continue to add value even when the lockdown is over.
What we learnt along the way is that with a few targeted changes, agility can be maintained and even enhanced, and this means that projects can continue to be delivered on time, on budget, and at the quality level that we’ve built our reputation on.