Updated: May 15
You are not alone if you have been struggling to make Scrum work in a distributed environment. 65% of all workers were forced to work from home in April 2020. This includes Scrum teams that were used to working in a collocated environment. This shift comes with its own unique challenges. Some of the challenges reported among distributed teams include communication, culture, time-zone differences, and trust (Jalali & Wohlin, 2010). This makes participating in software development methodologies that require face-to-face communication, such as Scrum, more challenging for remote workers. Therefore, it is often necessary to adopt additional practices in order to overcome the inherit challenges. These practices are not meant to change the Scrum framework but are meant to enhance it by filling in the gaps with practices that favor distributed teams’ needs.
Over the years, I have observed a series of practices that have been used in small and enterprise dispersed Agile environments. These practices can improve the performance of distributed teams by improving communication, culture compatibility, time-zone alignment, and trust. The items below outline the most commonly used practices. You may choose a few or all of these depending on your needs.
Persistent Collaboration Rooms
Have an always-on teleconferencing room open so that team members can join and collaborate on an ad hoc basis.
Use Digital Artifacts
Physical Sprint boards are nice forms of information radiators, but they do not work for distributed teams since team members need to update the artifacts in real-time. Keep a digital Sprint Board and Backlog in a software such as Jira or Rally and make sure that everyone has access to it.
Use PO Team Structure
A local Product Owner that is always available to the team is critical for product success. Having someone that can work with the team and answer questions in a timely manner can increase project success by as much as 25%. Consider creating a Product Owner, Chief Product Owner, and/or Product Manager structure to ensure the teams always have access to the PO in their respective time zones.
Cultural Awareness Training
Many communication challenges are a result of cultural differences, especially in globally dispersed teams. Cultural education can help increase communication efficiency.
Unified Communication Tools
Instant availability is key to making dispersed teams work. This helps to decrease delays caused by asynchronous communication, especially when there is a larger time zone difference. Unified communication tools such as MS Teams allows team members to use their preferred devices to communicate effectively, even when they are not in the office.
Video Sharing Meetings
Perceived proximity, communication, and trust are significantly increased when team members are able to see each other. It is not the same as face to face, but it is the next best thing. Encourage a culture where all team members share video during the Scrum events.
Having a single source of truth for all team members’ contact information ensures that individuals can be contacted by various means when situations arise. This greatly increases availability which in turn increases communication.
Electronic Visual Radiation
Most dispersed teams use digital agile project management software such as Rally, or Jira. Although these programs are great for coordinating product backlogs and Sprint tasks, they tend to “hide” information and hamper the visual radiation needed in successful Scrum environments. Make use of additional dashboard platforms such as Confluence to share the information via desktop sharing and make them visible to anyone during the Scrum events.
Team Working Agreements
Revise or create a new team working agreement. Working remotely has a different set of considerations. For example, establish how individuals can be contacted. Some companies might use Instant Messaging as the first form of contact. This means that individuals are expected to be logged in to the preferred IM program during their hours of operation. The same might apply cell phone and other forms of communication.
Minimum Bandwidth Standards
Choppy phone calls, lack of video and poor desktop sharing due to slow internet speeds create ineffective communication for distributed teams. Decide how you will communicate and ensure that everyone on the team meets the minimum requirements.
Ensure everyone has access
Ensure that team members have access to all the necessary resources to perform the work. This includes providing a secured VPN and/or having cloud access to the necessary repositories and components. Be sure to educate everyone on how to follow appropriate security practices.
Make time to Socialize
Team members will work more effectively together after spending time together. Having virtual happy hour or "show and share" sessions are great ways to continue to build social capital, even if we are distributed.
Don’t forget that you can achieve high levels of success using distributed Agile teams. One of the most productive documented software development projects used a distributed Scrum team (J. Sutherland, Viktorov, Blount, & Puntikov, 2007). Distributed Agile works. These practices are a portion of the many adopted by small and large groups that can make distributed Agile work effectively in your organization.