Advanced communication and collaborative technologies have largely been responsible for the onset of globalization, giving organizations a competitive advantage over slow adopters. These technologies have allowed people to work almost anywhere, anytime, and on any device. This has contributed to the age of distributed teams and the virtual employee; professionals who deliver critical business value, but are not constrained by co-location requirements.
The majority of Agile teams are distributed in some form or another. From my own personal experience, at least 70% of the Agile projects I worked in the last ten years have involved distributed teams. These include team members on another level of the building, down the road at another site, located in another city or even country.
There are some challenges with distributed teams that do need attention, such as problematic communications technology, language barriers, feelings of isolation, distractions at home, ineffective feedback and a lack of trust by managers. On the issue of trust, Daniel Cable, a professor of organizational psychology, believes that a lack of trust on behalf of managers is the greatest obstacle to successful remote teams.
However, another emerging issue is between the Agile purists who believe that Agile teams should be co-located in order to get the best results and Agile pragmatists who believe that the best self-organizing, cross-functional teams are the ones who create their own team from a global resource pool, regardless of location.
Choosing the best one is situational, as there are a number of variables are at play. However, there are some advantages to both schools of thought:
Advantages of co-located teams
Advantages of Agile distributed teams
Helping Agile distributed teams to succeed
There are a number of ways to get the best out of distributed teams. Digital tools such as video conferencing, Agile soft boards and collaboration platforms are just a few of the obvious enablers. Some good applications that I have used in the past include Zoom, Skype, Slack, Jira, and SharePoint. Also, adequate infrastructure such as computers and a reliable fast internet connection is another crucial enabler. I have witnessed several projects fail or underperform simply because internet connectivity and speed were severely limited.
Another critical factor that is rarely considered is that of psychological health. If the mind is not in the right place, the greatest tools in the world are not going to make a distributed Agile team successful. Agile teams differ from more traditional project teams in that they are far more useful to being empowered, self-organized, flexible, innovative, collaborative, with a flatter management structure. When an Agile team is distributed, it presents added complexity with regard to the psychological health that can impact these Agile team traits.
In my MBA thesis, I investigated the well-being of home-based workers in the BPO industry and discovered that 27% expressed feelings of isolation, less team unity, and missed their work colleagues. Perhaps more disturbing was the lack of organizational support for this phenomenon. While this may not always affect distributed workers, such as ones located in remote serviced offices, the feeling of disconnection is still there. I used to work for Fujitsu out of a serviced office many years ago. The offices were very nice, clean, well serviced, but empty most of the time. The only people I came across were strangers from the company who would drop in to have a meeting or print out something. I distinctly recall the feeling that I was alone with a phone to call prospect clients; more strangers. I was in a distributed team of business development managers and received zero communication from anyone about how I was coping, only about how the sales numbers were going.
So here are some of the critical success factors that helped me to reduce the negative psychological effects of Agile distributed teams:
The Scrum Master, Product Owner or other Agile lead needs to touch base with the distributed worker or team at least once a day. Videoconferencing is the best method or a phone call at the very least. It only needs to be 5-10 minutes just to touch base and let the team know they have organizational support. This is aside from the daily stand-up, which should also use video conferencing to promote a feeling of togetherness.
This is my own name for a special weekly get-together derived from a NO Work MEeting. As the name suggests, this meeting is not about work at all. It is an opportunity to get together virtually, via video conferencing, to chat about anything the team wants to chat about.
Virtual Coffee Cup
When regular meetings are scheduled in the head office or boardroom with a mix of co-located and distributed team members, I try and buy a custom coffee mug with the name of the distributed team member or members who are connecting remotely to the meeting. I actually fill up the coffee mug with their favorite beverage and place it on the table in view of the camera. This may seem like a simple thing, but you may be surprised just how inclusive people feel when they have been thought of as in that meeting room with everyone else. Remember Agile teams are equal members, so every effort should be made to make everyone feel equally appreciated.
This is where HR might need to step in and provide a service for distributed team members that feel isolated, frustrated, or even depressed. These issues can become serious. It is best to provide a service that is independent of the organization, but if that is not possible, HR needs trained and qualified personnel with regard to mental health and confidentiality.
Unfortunately, many performance assessments are only one way. With distributed Agile teams especially, there must be a 360° feedback on team performance, and that includes product owners, scrum masters, release managers etc.
Agile distributed teams are becoming the new norm. To label these teams as the lesser counterparts of their co-located cousins would be premature, especially since technology can only get better before the disadvantages start outweighing the advantages. While there is naturally some loss of osmotic communication with distributed teams, it is more than compensated by a healthier, happier, culturally diverse team of members that are backed up by the latest in communication and collaborative technology, and an unlimited global human resource pool.
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