Project management & leadership | November 24, 2022

Remote team management in Scrum

The last few years have changed many people’s perceptions of what our work is and what it should be like. The coronavirus pandemic and the mass exodus of employees from the office to the “home office” has only accelerated what had seemed inevitable for some time – the popularization of remote work and work in dispersed teams.

Remote team management

In the following article, I would like to briefly present and discuss the challenges involved in managing remote workers, as well as those faced by organizations working in a distributed model. I will present ways to motivate employees working in different parts of the world, as well as sharing basic tools that can help in the implementation of projects in Scrum teams where members work from different places.

A distributed team vs a distributed Scrum team

The definition of a distributed team refers to a situation in which all team members are in separate locations and/or work in different time zones. Very often, this means the lack of a physical office, leading individuals to work from home, in a temporary office, or in a co-working space.

At this point, it is worth emphasizing the differences between distributed and remote teams. In a remote team, at least some of the team members work in the same place. The other members either work together or separately. They work at the office or from home.

Managing remote employees

In order to picture how remote work may look, let’s imagine a situation in which a sales team works together to increase the sales of software aimed at several markets, and there are 3 offices with 5 people working in each one. They are a 15-person remote team, working from 3 different locations.

The definition of a Distributed Scrum team will be exactly the same as that of a regular distributed team. It is a team in which individual members are located in different places in a country or in the world, regardless of the time zone and distance, working together on one product. It doesn’t matter where the individuals are. In today’s globalized world, a situation where a Product Owner works from Poland, the development team is dispersed across various European Union countries, and the Scrum Master works from one of the business centers in India is no surprise.

The Scrum distributed model in Agile

The signatories to the Agile Manifesto, signed in 2001, explicitly state that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”.

In the 21 years since the Manifesto was published, the world has changed beyond all recognition. I don’t just mean the coronavirus pandemic, which only accelerated and channeled processes that were unavoidable. Broadband Internet allows you to work comfortably from your home office. Thanks to the mobile network and lower data transfer fees, you can work e.g., from the beach on the other side of the world. There are many indications that the next communication revolution may be Starlink – mobile Internet that provides fast data transfer even in remote places without access to a mobile network.

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Nearshore software development teams

Thanks to all this, people spread out all over the world, working in different time zones, can not only collaborate but collaborate smoothly. This level of convenience when it comes to communication could not have been foreseen by the signatories to the Agile Manifesto 21 years ago. I am convinced that the communication revolution will accelerate even more in the near future and will make the boundaries between face-to-face meetings and virtual meetings increasingly blurred.

When discussing work in dispersed teams, it is significant to note that, due to globalization, organizations have access to talents located across the globe. Until recently, the territorial scope greatly limited the search for suitable workers. And remember that not everyone was willing to relocate to another city or country in order to get their dream job. Currently, this problem has been dramatically reduced.

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Project management tools useful for remote work in Scrum teams

In order for work in distributed teams to be comfortable and efficient, the right tools are needed to make the process transparent, and communication seamless and clear. A comparison of tools and programs used by many remote IT teams could be the subject of extensive articles, which are probably already available on the Internet. Please allow me to provide just a few examples of those that my team members are working on and that I can recommend:

  • Jira – I think everyone has heard of this powerful task and project management tool. Some adore Jira for its intuitiveness of use; others curse it for the multitude of features and add-ons. In my project, Jira is one of the tools we use to help with managing tasks, prioritizing the backlog or managing Sprints.
  • Confluence – we jokingly call it “our little Wikipedia”. In fact, we use Confluence to create the necessary documentation and information pages, which we then use to spread knowledge among employees. Our “internal Wikipedia” is priceless when onboarding employees. On dedicated websites, newcomers can find all the necessary information to start working on projects.
  • Miro – I like Miro because it is a creative place allowing us to prepare boards for various occasions or meetings. Tools like Miro are particularly useful during a Retrospective, which may turn out to be annoying for the Scrum Team after some time. Nothing kills a team’s spirit like boredom does.
  • Google Meet – I remember about 6 years ago when the platforms for video conferencing and online conversations were unreliable. They often crashed and were incompatible with various devices. Fortunately, these problems are now a thing of the past. Most popular communication platforms, such as Google Meet, Zoom, or Teams, are good at supporting many participants dispersed around the world, connecting from different machines or mobile phones.

Challenges of managing remote teams

Insufficient onboarding and process learning

During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, I conducted several personal consultations with employees for whom recruitment and remote work were completely new experiences. From the conversations, the image emerged of an employee who was very often left to himself or herself. Organizations were often used to carrying out the basic onboarding process, assuming that the person would obtain the rest of the information from his or her colleagues.

A remote way of working highlights the risks associated with such an approach. A person left alone until they report difficulties with understanding the process may simply go unnoticed. We need to remember that not every employee has the strength of personality to write to strangers and ask for details of, for example, the process or product which they are working on.

Therefore, while setting up dispersed teams, it is very important to create a detailed onboarding plan, which will include not only the introduction to the organizational culture, but also knowledge of the product, tools, documentation and, importantly, co-workers.

Another important aspect is the appointment of a mentor (buddy) who will support a newcomer in the process of onboarding and integration with the team. It is worth noting at this point that taking care of a new employee takes a lot of time and energy. It is usually assumed that at the beginning, being a buddy can take up to 50% of the employee’s involvement in everyday work.

A good introduction and onboarding bring profits in the long run. Thanks to this, newly recruited remote workers may feel more involved, less frustrated, and perform their duties better. The time spent onboarding quickly pays off – the team gains a real member of the team. I would also venture to say that onboarding done right reduces employee turnover, which is confirmed by research:

“Well-onboarded employees are happy to stay with the company for longer. In turn, out of all employees who decide to leave their jobs, as many as 20% do so within their first 45 days in the new organization.”

Team mismatch

Every team lead or Scrum Master knows all too well that even perfect onboarding will not make the team integrated from the early days of cooperation. Working on team spirit is a continuous process, requiring the involvement not only of a Scrum Master but also of all remote team members.

Too many calls and unnecessary team meetings

The problem of having too many online meetings has probably affected anyone who has worked in an IT company or a large corporation. It is worth implementing some effective meeting habits:

  1. Each meeting should have a clearly defined agenda, which can be consulted by any person receiving the invitation. We can then assume that the participants of the meeting will be prepared, and the topics discussed will not be a surprise to anyone.
  2. Remember that the duration of a meeting directly impacts the involvement of its participants. We cannot require them to be focused and fully engaged during a 2-hour call. It is simply physically impossible and goes against human nature. Let the meetings be as short as possible, and importantly they should not take much longer than planned. Let us respect our own time and that of others. When organizing a longer meeting, remember to schedule regular coffee or toilet breaks. A 10-minute break will allow you to rest and gather your thoughts before continuing the conversation.
  3. Participants: yet another 20-person meeting with only 5 active members? Next time, let’s think twice about the invite list. It may turn out that not everyone needs to attend the meeting.
  4. Proper planning. Nothing annoys people as much as ad hoc calls scheduled one hour beforehand (which often turns out not to be that urgent). Respect your colleagues – organizing such meetings disrupts work and impacts the plans that each person has already arranged for that day.

Too large a team

Large teams are the scourge of any project. Not without reason, the Scrum Guide is extremely clear on this point: “The Scrum Team is small enough to remain nimble and large enough to complete significant work within a Sprint, typically 10 or fewer people. In general, we have found that smaller teams communicate better and are more productive. If Scrum Teams become too large, they should consider reorganizing into multiple cohesive Scrum Teams, each focused on the same product”.

Why reinvent the wheel when you can learn from the mistakes you made a long time ago? Teams of more than 10 people (not only Scrum ones) have communication issues. Managing employees in such teams is far more difficult. Moreover, team members may experience the phenomenon of social loafing and many other negative aspects, for which the remedy is very often… a smaller team. Don’t be afraid to create more teams – in my experience, it is always better to have two teams of 10 people than one 20-person team.

Also read: Project team building – practical tips for Scrum teams

Understatements and communication problems

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, work in dispersed teams has become permanent, not only in the IT industry but in other industries as well, even those in which such a turn of events was hard to imagine. Despite the obvious benefits, we have to face the challenges posed by working from home.

Over the course of several discussions, many people pointed out to me that understatements and communication problems very often disrupt work and result in a feeling of confusion. When talking in person, it is easier for us to pick up the nuances of communication – mainly through body language or facial expressions.

When talking online, let’s be direct and specific to avoid difficulties. Let’s make sure that the interlocutor has a good understanding of our intentions or request. Always have your video on and make it clear that you are open to helping or providing additional explanation.

When employees are working in an international environment, mind the cultural and linguistic context. Your accent may be incomprehensible to some people. If you did not understand the interlocutor, ask for a text message. This way, it is easier to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.

Availability

Each of us has a different style of work and communication. If we add cultural differences and simultaneous work from different places around the world, then we get some kind of explosive mixture. Before starting collaboration, remember to create a “code of cooperation” accepted by all team members.

What can be the norm for one team member can be annoying and disturbing for another. The Code of Cooperation should include:

  • the form of organizing meetings,
  • how to get in touch in case of ad hoc questions,
  • working hours (when we are available at work),
  • signaling breaks,
  • letting others know when we have to finish work early.

All of this will allow you to avoid misunderstandings and facilitate working together, despite the distance between us, as well as the varying habits and cultural contexts of different team members.

Control of remote workers

One of the reasons why some managers are reluctant to switch to a remote work model entirely is the lack of control over employees. I’ve learned this through informal conversations during my work as a Scrum Master in various organizations in recent years.

In this context, the employee appears to be an irresponsible person who will jump at any opportunity just to cook dinner or do laundry. But doesn’t the same “problem” also occur in offices where employees are not tied to their desks but can move freely between rooms or even floors to talk to colleagues? Even if we imagine an admittedly ridiculous example in which an employee were physically tied to their desk for most of their time at work, how can we be sure that they would work and not let their mind wander?

The level of employee engagement is not a result of scrupulous supervision or one’s physical presence in the office. Commitment is the result of a personal decision, which is influenced by many factors such as:

  • trust in the organization,
  • the feeling of a job well done,
  • having an impact on work and the decision-making process,
  • interpersonal relations,
  • a sense of security and stability of employment.

If the above is lacking, then the workplace does not matter – it is very likely that a member of your regular or virtual team will not be motivated.

I don’t want my words to be interpreted as praise for a lack of supervision of employees. In the end, the work of each of us should be fairly judged and controlled as well. Because what are inspection and adaptation, as described in the Scrum Guide and which the Scrum events are based on, if not a form of process and work control?

Also read: Motivate, give feedback – tips for managing remote teams

How can we engage a remote team and keep motivation high over a long period of time? It seems extremely difficult, but it is not impossible for a remote team manager. The first period of team formation, which a great deal of time and commitment should be devoted to, seems to be particularly demanding. There are no shortcuts – people in the team must get to know each other, discover ways of cooperation, and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Great remote teams are not afraid of making mistakes

The culture of open communication certainly has a positive impact on building team spirit. Let’s remember that creating an atmosphere of respect and openness is a difficult task. You need not only words, but above all deeds. Reassure your team members that they can raise any topic in public, even the most controversial ones or those that seem ridiculous at first glance. Accepting experiments and making mistakes also positively affect your team, improving morale and motivation. Making mistakes is not only part of human nature – no one is infallible – it also creates an opportunity to achieve better results by experimenting or using new tools.

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Provide remote workers with feedback

If you’re managing a team, remember how important regular feedback is. Usually, it is structured through the organization’s internal processes, but nothing prevents individual team members from giving each other feedback on team members’ work. This will have a positive impact on motivation – after all, every feedback contains elements of praise, which many people need to work effectively. Sincere and constructive feedback can direct us to aspects that need improvement, which can make us even better specialists in our field.

How to get the team together? Best practices for managing remote Scrum teams

If you are a manager of a remote team, you know the challenges of remote leadership like no one else. Below are some tips for managing a remote team and examples of daily activities that can help you build team spirit and increase productivity:

  1. Holding Daily meetings online but unable to have coffee together in the office kitchen? Try to catch up online 10 minutes before the official meeting to talk informally about… whatever you want. Maybe you will find out how your friend spent the weekend, or see their dog come back inside on the video feed? Remember to book the right “timebox” for this purpose and clearly distinguish it. There is no time for small talk during the Daily; it should be substantive and take no longer than 15 minutes.
  2. Who said that a Retrospective is only for discussing aspects related to processes and organization? Show off a little, share your holiday photos, and add a funny meme that may help you break the ice. We are all professionals, but also people who (mostly) have a sense of humor. Little funny things like that will help the team to develop a bond with one another.
  3.  Playing online over a beer? Why not! Working in dispersed teams means that very often, despite our willingness to do so, we are unable to meet physically in one place and have lunch together. A good substitute can be a Friday meeting over an online game with a cup of tea or another beverage in hand. A relaxed atmosphere can help some employees open up and integrate better.
  4.  Did I mention that none of the above really makes sense if we don’t turn on our webcams? Anyone who has attended an online meeting at least once knows how difficult it is to talk to an avatar or name appearing over the employee’s profile photo. Let’s make life a bit easier for ourselves and turn on our cameras (and make others show themselves as well). No one sits under a blanket or wears a face mask during a meeting at the office, so why hide when team members are working remotely?

Also read: A manager’s guide to project management tools  

Best practices for managing remote teams – summary

The transition to a remote workforce has forced organizations to fundamentally change their working environment. Remote management is a real challenge in times when face-to-face interaction (which has been standard) is slowly becoming a reminder of pre-pandemic times. Luckily, there are a number of tools to help communicate better in a remote environment and practices you can employ to make remote work a better experience.

I hope the above article on managing teams has given you an insight into the challenges that companies, distributed teams or remote employees may encounter. Cooperation in an international environment is certainly an organizational challenge, but it is also a great opportunity to attract new talents and help your company grow.

Scrum Master at Inetum. He believes in empiricism and iteration and teaches Scrum Teams independence and responsibility. Outside of work, Łukasz is a mountaineer and climber, as well as the operator of the Tuudi.net portal.