Leading your Remote, Agile Teams to Success Needs These 3 Big Shifts

Sumeet Moghe, Product Manager. TW


As a leader of a software development team, in these times, you probably see yourself at the sharp end of change.

Didn’t they say agile’s done best, co-located?

Yes, they did. And, they also said that it works best when the client and the development team are at the same table? If not in a big, borderless office then at least in a team room, right?

But, what if you had to go remote? I’m not talking about just a few people working from home. What if your entire team could work from wherever they please?

Given that this is our reality today, I’ve pooled together a few burning questions that might be racing through your mind –

  • How do you retain your team’s mojo when working remotely?
  • How do you set your team up for success?
  • How will you adapt to when the world’s back to normal but some of your team chooses to continue working remotely?

In this article, I’ve outlined a broad strategy of 3 big shifts that will help you lead your team through the new normal and emerge resilient and equipped to handle this style of work in the future.

Shift 1: Broaden your mindset

How will you and your team operate on a daily basis?

Image credit: https://heeris.id.au/2013/this-is-why-you-shouldnt-interrupt-a-programmer/

Working remote is not about finding a way to do the same things you did when you were all in the same place. For one, let’s reconsider if open offices are all they were made out to be.

The expectation is that open offices are the perfect way to break silos and make team members accessible to each other. While they do accomplish that to an extent, the unwanted side effect is the offices turning into interruption factories.

For instance, I was talking to a few colleagues who missed the ability to ‘ask a colleague across the table’ if they had a question. While that does seem like a killer app in favour of an open office, spare a thought for the person interrupted.

Now, multiply those interruptions by the number of people in the team and you’re forced to consider how much team productivity is lost from the constant disruptions.

“Not every question needs an answer immediately—there’s nothing more arrogant than taking up someone else’s time with a question you don’t need an answer to right now.” – David Heinemeier Hansson, Remote

Now, imagine a remote inclusive workplace that works asynchronously. You could still pick up the phone for the really urgent stuff, but for most other conversations the team can respond over instant messages (IM) or email.

If the phone call, chat or email lead to a video call, that’s something one can structure their day around. Everyone focuses on their work for the rest of the time and without any interruptions. A word of caution though, none of this is possible without consensus within the team on what constitutes a reasonable response to IMs (a few minutes to a few hours) and email (usually < 24 hours). This agreement should be part of your Ways Of Working (WoW).

This broadening-the-mind shift also demands that you and everyone on your team questions the status quo.

Here’s one – do we really need the all-member team meetings? We could choose to follow the ‘chicken and pigs’ approach. If you’re committed, join the meeting. If you’re only going to be ‘involved’, then you’ll be kept you posted on the decisions. That means one could spend their time being more productive.

Side note; Agile, 2001 and XP, 1999 practices came up in an era where remote work was almost impossible. There’s no harm in challenging the norm, lest we fall prey to dogma.

If you are looking for a few tips on how to operate, here is a short checklist:

  • Be a path-clearer – Don’t worry about tracking people’s tasks. Instead, ensure tools and practices are in place that help the team collectively own tracking work.
  • Get people unblocked – Connect them to others who can help. Share feedback with team members and help them grow. Listen to how they feel about their own contributions and their place in the team. Help them sustain the needed pace. In that, you’ll see yourself grow as a leader.

Shift 2: Grow an inclusive culture

Enable everyone to bring your whole selves to work

Get to know your teammates. And, their families

Offices are rather sanitized and are only slightly different replicas of other corporate spaces. Our homes, however, aren’t as homogenous.

When we transition to a remote-inclusive work environment, it’s important to be aware of our team-mate’s individual situations a little more than we would otherwise. Some of us will have kids to pick up after school. Worse, it could be the kids’ vacation and they may want to hug us while we’re on a video call. There could be an ailing family member who needs periodic care.

The situations are likely to be highly diverse. Team members could either get exasperated with the differences and disturbances or be accommodative of them. I daresay, the latter approach creates a safe and inclusive team environment. So, go ahead and say hello to the four-year-old who just ran across your colleague’s screen during a meeting. With such empathy comes a bit more rigor and responsibility.

One way to approach this style of working is to work out loud, as my colleague Kelsey suggests. Working out loud also means that we iterate and publish our work regularly and create triggers for peer feedback and collaboration. This approach makes the good old status update meeting less about updates and more about removing blockers to help each other out.

Your team’s WoW also needs to include communications. ThoughtWorks has used workspaces like Google Drive, Basecamp and team wikis like Confluence and Mediawiki with success before. However, your mileage could vary so, and the recommendation is to discuss with the team before you pick what works.

Shift 3: Quit the shiny new toys

Instead, favour a ubiquitous toolset

Familiar tools are productive tools

At ThoughtWorks, we have a global chat group called ‘Location independence and remote working’. The group’s constantly buzzing with information and ideas about tools and practices that one could use to work remotely.

While I have an academic interest in everything that I hear from the group, I find it hard to put all that advice to use. Similarly, it’s easy to be attracted to the shiny new collaboration tool that’s all the buzz. But, keep in mind that every new tool bears‘the biggest cost of any collaboration tool; the time it takes to onboard your team.’

If you were to retrace your steps, you will see that the onboarding cost doesn’t just include the development team’s time but often all of your stakeholders as well. The onboarding process could involve convincing people (like clients) to use the new tool. It could also mean a security and systems review and sometimes a lengthy procurement process. And, before you know it, you could find yourself shaving a yak.

For your remote team, it helps to stick to the toolset everyone’s already familiar with. People are used to the quirks and have probably found workarounds where necessary. By all means, choose good tools but don’t be obsessed with finding the best tool of the month.   Remember, ubiquity always wins.

Simplicity is a great way to focus such efforts. Do you need to scribe notes like you would on a whiteboard? Google Doc does the trick. Do you need to throw post-its on a whiteboard? A collaborative PowerPoint slide on O365 will work.

I’d advise a guiding principle in this case; let your outcomes define your tool choices. Let me illustrate with an example. As a photographer, I’d equate a new tool with a camera upgrade. Accepted that a professional camera will give you better images over a mobile phone. But, are you really hitting any constraints with your mobile phone photos? If not, do you still need a new camera? Now, if your mobile phone isn’t able to capture or create the images you’d like, then a camera upgrade is in order.

Not long ago, Upwork predicted that 73% of all teams will have remote workers in the next decade. The events of recent months seem to have fast tracked us into that future. I have no doubt that a large section of our workforce will demand we stay in this future. While none of the shifts we have talked through are rocket science and the tools to support our shifts have been around for quite a while, this is a time to be open and explorative as a leader. My hope is that we can use this global-scale-of-instant-change as an opportunity to make our teams stay productive, and help our organizations be more resilient.