Managing Distributed Teams

Distributed agile: The challenges with distributed teams working agile

Best practices for remote teams.
May 6, 2022
Oyster Team
Distributed agile: The challenges with distributed teams working agile

Before fire trucks, firefighters transported water to the scene of a blaze via the bucket brigade. A human chain formed to extinguish a fire by passing on buckets of water hand to hand from a distant source. If one link in the chain broke, the entire rescue effort failed, and the house burnt down. 

Agile principles manage the human chain of any project. As with many of the changes to traditional ways of working, remote work has created some new challenges for people leaders managing distributed agile teams. Let’s look at the most prominent of these challenges (and how to solve them).

Challenges of distributed agile development teams

Communication, coordination, and collaboration 

Challenge: Agile teams plan continuously throughout a project rather than having a single, consolidated plan ahead of time. This means agile team members must maintain constant communication, like the links in a bucket brigade.

But 41% of new remote workers say the most challenging aspect of working from home is collaborating and communicating with coworkers.

Pie charts that show distributed agile challenges

While this is true across the board, remote agile teams are more likely to lose sight of their goals when communication breaks down, especially since:

  • Team members work in different time zones, making it difficult to schedule meetings or casual conversations. Also, delayed responses are common on virtual communication channels.
  • Team members come from various cultural backgrounds and speak a variety of languages. Nuance and context differ across languages, which can lead to many misunderstandings. 
  • Building relationships can be tricky because team members do not work in the same physical space. Team bonding and camaraderie go a long way toward improving sync and productivity. 

Solution: To overcome your team’s communication challenges, set clear communication expectations from the beginning—e.g., give every team member a timeline for checking in. And embrace alternative communication approaches like asynchronous communication

Async communication allows team members to respond to communication on their schedule, whether this be through written communication or video updates. This way, there’s less pressure for all members to stay connected simultaneously. This also preserves the flexibility of remote work for each team member and improves productivity. Adhering to an approach that works for everyone, no matter what time zone they’re in, creates an added sense of trust—and no one is left out of the loop. 

Team members’ isolation

Challenge: Humans thrive on social interactions. But staying social in a remote environment can be a challenge. This can lead to more significant issues such as:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor communication
  • Misunderstood expectations
Pie charts showing percentages

Solution: To avoid feelings of isolation, develop a strategy for fostering relationships and connections. 

For example, team leaders can provide opportunities for team members to express themselves through an internal wiki page, #watercooler Slack channels for casual conversations (e.g., health, wellness, puns, Star Wars jokes, etc.), or by encouraging informal one-on-one coffee chats with each other. 

These channels also facilitate casual knowledge sharing, which provides more ground for team bonding. It's easy to see how a relationship could blossom out of a mutual love for Sting, for example, rather than talk about debugging.

Difficulties with embracing everyone’s flexibility 

Challenge: Maintaining agility in a distributed team is hard as team members often have different routines and work environments. Distributed work comes with autonomy. But this also means there’s the risk of some team members falling behind on tasks if they’re not used to this sort of working environment.  

Solution: Team leaders must set clear objectives and expectations so that team members have a strong understanding of the goals they’re working towards. Along with this, leaders should also establish systems for reporting on progress, communicating roadblocks, and providing feedback.

It’s just as important to create a solid structure that informs your team about scheduled meetings, essential projects, and deadlines. That way, it’s easy to measure performance and identify challenges your team may be having. 

Still, it’s crucial to be adaptable when dealing with team members. People have different work styles and preferences, so team leads must make individual considerations when making judgments or decisions.

Lastly, schedule regular one-on-one and/or collective check-ins (whether synchronous meetings or asynchronous milestone updates) to ensure that everyone is on track.

Difficulties with the learning curves for different technologies

Challenge: Working in tech can be a whirlwind—there are more new developments than one could keep up with. 

Some team members catch on faster than others when it comes to new tech. Those who struggle to adapt to the team's technology may feel like they can’t keep up and could require some extra support from their manager or teammates.. 

Solution: Team leaders should ensure that everyone understands how to use the digital tools at their disposal. 

They can do this by scheduling formal training for commonly-used tools and creating resources that answer questions before they are asked. Wiki guides or video tutorials can serve as reference materials for new team members or anyone who needs a refresher

Supporting team members in this way demonstrates that they are valued and that their well-being is essential. This boosts job satisfaction and motivates them to do their best work.

Best practices for distributed teams working agile

Best practices graphic

Now that we've covered the challenges of distributed agile teams, let's look at some best practices for implementing agile in a distributed setting.

Structure your distributed team well

A team is only as good as each of its members. To give your agile team better chances of success, hire top talent from the start. 

Even in traditional co-located settings, it’s critical to have highly motivated team members. But you’ll need to go one up when hiring remote agile team members. That's because they'll have to put in more effort to communicate, stay engaged, remain focused, and be productive. 

Trusting your team members to do their best work, and allowing them the space to do so, gives each team member more autonomy and responsibility in their roles. This empowers  your team members to make sound decisions independently, often saving time on status updates and creating more space to be strategic when collaborating.

Measure team productivity

Without metrics, it’s nearly impossible to evaluate how your team is measuring against the goals you’ve set. Team leaders should establish which metrics are needed to track a distributed team's progress toward achieving set objectives.

This can be a difficult task with team members dispersed across time zones. But, to get you started, here are some metrics for agile team productivity:

Metrics for agile teams
  • Velocity charts. Velocity is the amount of work a team can handle in a set period. Agile team leads call each successful run a ‘sprint.’ Velocity charts visually represent your project's progress. Team leaders can use a velocity chart to predict how much work their agile team can handle in future sprints. And then set goals accordingly.
  • Planned-to-done ratios. You can use the planned-to-done ratio to measure how much work a team member has completed against their assignments. You calculate the planned-to-done ratio by dividing the number of tasks that should have been completed by the number of completed tasks. Then convert that number to a percentage.
  • Cycle time. Cycle time refers to the time it takes to start and finish a task. A task's cycle time indicates how long it takes to complete it in calendar time.

Invest in the right equipment and tools

As the old saying goes, a worker is only as good as their tools. The right tools will help excellent teams produce even better work. 

Tools are essential when it comes to distributed agile team communication and collaboration. This can include:

  • Continuous delivery and integration tools such as Jenkins and GitLab (in the case of projects that involve software)
  • Documentation using wikis such as Notion
  • Video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype
  • Chat platforms such as Slack
  • Project-tracking tools such as Asana and Jira

Emphasize camaraderie and build professional relationships

Team bonding practices can make or break each team member's job satisfaction and productivity levels. Personal connection boosts team morale, minimizes missed expectations, and builds trust between team members.

It’s important for team leaders to develop creative avenues for remote team building. Here are some ideas:

  • Share home office tours. Have each team member give the rest of the gang a home office tour. It’s an excellent springboard for conversations about how they’re coping with work from home and other mutual interests.
  • Organize company-wide events. Company-wide events are a great way to get employees to mingle and interact, and this shouldn't stop just because you're not at a physical office. You can use video-conferencing tools to schedule and host regular meets, and facilitate games, scavenger hunts, or other interactive elements to ensure everyone is engaged.
  • Start a “good news” channel. A space for team members to share and celebrate wins (work-related or not) can inspire more productivity and collaboration amongst teammates.   

Form a strong collaboration and development culture

The purpose of agile is to enable teams to respond quickly to change, which you can only accomplish through consistent and effective communication. 

Teams communicate and collaborate through daily standups, planning sessions, and sprints. While these may look different in a remote environment than they would in an office, the outcome is no different.

Project owners can ensure proper collaboration between team members by organizing daily scrums, planning sessions, and virtual discussions to make distributed teams work more efficiently.

Agile for distributed teams 

Being agile requires trust and transparency—and developing both requires time spent working together.  

To set up your distributed team for success, you cannot ignore communication, culture, and tools. But those aren’t exactly things that can be learned by simply reading an article online—it’ll take consistent practice to learn, implement, and master them. 

If you’re looking for support on how to create a culture of distributed work within your company, check out Oyster Academy to help you enhance distributed communication and collaboration on your team.

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world—with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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