During the first webinar of the new Retrium Expert Series, Mark Kilby, expert on distributed agile, gave some great insights into how distributed teams can be better supported by building customized workspaces.
Though heavily involved in the agile community, Mark recognizes the flexibility that remote work has allowed him, such as spending more time with his family and dedicating time to hobbies such as blacksmithing. Through his time spent blacksmithing, he has realized that there are many surprising similarities between agile concepts and the craft of forging metal. The biggest lesson he’s learned from blacksmithing that he applies to agile development is this:
“If the tools don’t work, we put them in the fire and change them into something that does work. It’s about adapting what you have to what you need — and it’s the same for all teams, but specifically distributed teams.”
Top 3 Takeaways From The Webinar
Many great points were covered during the hour-long webinar, but three main points continued to resurface and act as the all-encompassing truth behind Mark’s insights.
Go Back To The Principles
When faced with any challenge in the agile world, teams can go back to the basics and find solutions within the agile principles for distributed teams. Here are some recommendations:
- Establish acceptable hours of overlap
- Create transparency at all levels
- Create a culture of improvements with experiments
- Practice pervasive communication at all levels
- Assume good intention
- Create a project rhythm
- Create a culture of resilience
- Default to collaborative work
Chaos To Successful Distributed Agile Teams, written by Mark and his co-author Johanna Rothman, talks about how teams can use principles over practices when designing their workspace. Since remote teams have different challenges, it’s important to go back to the values of agile, and the unique values that each team has in order to make space for improvement and reflection.
Pick The Best Tools For Your Team’s Context
Much like blacksmithing, what you’re left with at the end of a session won’t be very useful if you don’t have the necessary tools to create it. This is why Mark recommends choosing the most important ‘power tools’ for your team’s context. Each remote team is built differently, meaning the tools needed to do the building may vary by team as well.
Here are some “power tools” that your team can factor into its principles:
- Team core hours, rather than office hours — since distributed teams often operate within many different time zones, it can be helpful to collaboratively come up with ‘core hours’ for dedicated work time, to avoid conflicting with ‘life hours’.
- Choice — by giving the team a choice on any given solution to a challenge, the power is put in their hands.
- Dedicated team chat backchannels — it’s helpful to have a separate chat channel so that once the meeting ends, information can still be found. This is also helpful in case a virtual meeting crashes, the team can come together to decide on a different meeting space.
- Retrospective dedicated space — a place to keep the team’s ideas/topics that they’d like to talk about during the next retrospective. Whether it’s a shared space, or a dedicated personal space to jot down thoughts, teams can brainstorm asynchronously and then when they’re ready, talk about them synchronously.
- Stakeholder/Partner-team Collaboration Space — a dedicated shared chat channel used for partnership conversations.
- A/B Tool for Synchronous Collaboration - From experience, Mark finds that it’s helpful to have two meeting tools available at any time for a team, because at some point one of them may go down. This ties into the separate chat channel, because the communication is never broken. There is no waiting, time wasted, or rescheduling.
How can a team ensure everyone can access these tools? Mark explains the answer comes with having a dedicated space for every aspect of the principles.
Here’s an excerpt from Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams to explain in more detail:
Ensure Teams Have Tools For DevOps AND HumanOps
A great question to ask your team is — what is your HumanOps toolset?
Mark explains that synchronous communication and face-to-face interaction are the main differentiators in successful communication methods of distributed teams and it all goes back to fostering a human connection. When striving for success, it’s helpful to focus on conversations, honest opinions, and video calls which can greatly improve a team’s feeling of connectedness.
In this chart, Mark explains how communication effectiveness increases as the naturalness of communication improve. Email, audio-only, or recorded meetings are helpful, but a sturdy platform with real-time video capabilities are a team’s best bet when thinking about ways to improve distributed team communication.
Lastly, Mark opened up the conversation to the webinar attendees, and he answered the top-rated question in the Q+A channel:
Question: With so many teams working together, how do we handle all of the different places that messages are coming in? How do we prioritize?
Mark’s Answer: It depends on the size of your team. For teams beyond 5, or collaborating with multiple teams, you will get bombarded with all kinds of messages. You should establish early on as the team gets formed, what the primary communication channel is, and stick to it.
In summary, the challenges in building a better workspace for a distributed team can be solved when the team focuses on the principles, values, and unique context of their team. These solutions, backed by authentic, effective, communication can help a distributed team thrive, no matter how many time-zones or virtual roadblocks stand in the way.
Next Up: Discover how your distributed team can benefit from regular, well-facilitated retrospectives.