How to Work Effectively in a Remote Team: Agile Practices and Tools
Just because Agile wasn't designed with remote teams in mind doesn't mean you can't make them work.
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When the Agile Manifesto was published in 2001, remote development teams were rare. A lot has changed in the industry since then. Remote teams are everywhere, with many tech companies working with multiple teams spread across the world.
And yet, Agile was created with the idea that everyone would be working in the same office. Bringing together clustered teams is based on the idea that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is a face-to-face conversation.”
How do companies reconcile that with the benefits of working with a remote team?
Challenges of Coordinating Remote Teams
Working with remote teams does come with several challenges. For many of these, technology plays a key role in supporting a solution. However, to ensure success, companies and those working with freelance or agency remote teams need to make sure they are hiring developers who are strong communicators.
Agile is all about communicating. Project managers and product owners need to overcome the following challenges when a development team or group of teams is remote:
- Coordinating work across time zones, especially when one team is relying on another for something before they can start;
- Building a strong working report when everyone is in different offices, countries and time zones;
- Collaborating across cultural and language barriers;
- Scheduling meetings and group calls when time zones mean teams and team members are only online at the same time for a few hours.
All of these are challenges that product owners or managers and clients encounter when working with remote teams. But none of them are impossible to solve. None of these challenges negatively impact the upsides of Agile methodologies.
Benefits of Agile
The Agile approach gives software teams the ability to implement a “clear framework that promotes iterative development, team collaboration, with a focus on quality and efficiency.”
Agile replaced overly long, complicated, and expensive development cycles. Instead of months working on a product, or product update, a team can run through a development cycle in days or even hours. Pushing new changes live (or within a testing environment), testing them, learning from what needs to be changed, then iterating into a new development cycle.
This approach is regarded the world over as faster, more efficient, producing greatly improved outputs on legacy approaches, and more cost-efficient. At the same time, remote teams are considered more cost-effective, giving companies access to a wider talent pool, not restricting them to within an hours commute of any one office.
Here is how managers can benefit from Agile development practices while overcoming the challenges of coordinating remote teams.
Best Practices and Tools for Remote Agile Teams
Some of the most recognized tech companies in the world are known for — and successful at — coordinating completely remote and Agile teams. Buffer, the social media scheduling startup, has over 80 staff; all of them are remote. Developers account for over 30% of the company and they always work using Agile principles.
Buffer makes sure it recruits people who adhere to its six core values, with a strong focus on communication and sharing as often as possible, with team Slack channels, shared email, and Zoom calls. Trello, another invaluable tool for remote teams, employ managers who “work hard to build and maintain great relationships with their teams.”
Remote team members are not meant to be out of sight, out of mind. Off-site does not make them a lower priority. Companies with strong and successful cultures make remote teams a priority, especially those that need a higher degree of coordination, such as those building products. Other best practices that prove invaluable for remote teams include the following:
#1: Modular Design, Modular Teams
Structure your global teams around the needs of the product. When best practice design principles recommend a modular design, you can reduce the need to coordinate across time zones when teams are focused on a single piece of technology. This way, each team operating in the same time zone is largely autonomous.
Coordination is less of an issue this way until integration is needed, which is when APIs can play a key role.
#2: Clearly-Defined Product Road Map
With a clearly defined scope of work (SOW), managers can plan modular workloads in different countries/time zones. This should include timescales, milestones, and iteration points so that each team has the flexibility needed to make changes based on user feedback and other factors.
Once a SOW outlines the overall approach, a product roadmap is needed to map out the requirements to achieve the product vision. It is meant to be a flexible tool, in-keeping with Agile and iterative processes. But it does provide everyone with a clear idea where they're meant to be going and when/how to make changes depending on the speed of the development process, feedback and external factors.
#3: Encourage Collaboration
Remote teams need to get to know one another. It is the most effective ways to bridge gaps between offices, cultures, and time zones. Online team get-togethers, video chats, “intro blogs” (which is something Atlassian encourages) are all great ways to cultivating a strong embedded team culture, which translates into more effective product development and iterative cycles.
Remote work wouldn't be possible without a stack of tech tools. Here is a selection of the most useful tools to coordinate remote teams include:
Slack is, without doubt, one of the most valuable tools for quick, synchronous communication between remote team members. As is Telegram, a newer replacement for Slack.
Zapier is a great way to automate workflows that involve multiple tools and apps, such as Trello, Gmail, and Slack. Connecting over 1,000 apps, remote teams can coordinate work more easily this way.
Skype needs no introduction. A Microsoft-owned product, Skype has been used for years by anyone who’s ever worked remotely or traveled and needed to stay in contact with friends and family.
Google Hangouts is part of the Gmail and G-Suite group of services. Free or included in the price if you have a business account (using a company domain name); a great way to message or have video/voice calls and screen share.
It is often vital to know exactly when everyone is working wherever they are in the world, so a time zone tracker such as HomeSlice or Team Time Zone is always useful.
One way to take the uncertainty out of working with a remote team is to use a tech talent marketplace to recruit and manage remote Agile developers. It is far easier and more cost effective to work with developers who are already part of a team. In this way, you maintain contact with the developers doing the work — instead of an account manager — throughout the project, making sure you get what you want built without the stress and uncertainty of working with a freelancer, or the higher costs associated with recruiting someone in-house.
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