Changes my Agile Team made to Transition to fully Remote

COVID-19 has thrust us all into a remote-only way of working. With this new way of working comes new challenges we’re all experiencing. Here are some changes my agile team made to transition to a completely remote environment.

Updated our Team Agreement

Once we realized we were now a remote-only team, the first thing we did was look at our team agreement.

Our initial team agreement was created based on the assumption that most of us worked in the office. Now that was no longer the case. Our agreement which assumed physical presence no longer applied. Situations like what to do if you see someone with their headphones on no longer applied.

Since Slack was our main method of communication we had to rely on it’s built-in signifiers. Headphones on your head became utilizing the “Do not Disturb” indicator.

Continued One-on-Ones

If you’re already doing individual touch bases with your team members then don’t stop. Even though it’s one more virtual meeting in an abundance of virtual meetings, it’s the most important one.

In a 2013 Bloomberg interview, Marissa Mayer spoke to the importance of avoiding burnout by knowing your monitoring your emotional energy levels. You need to make sure your monitoring and replenishing your emotional energy levels, these days more than ever.

Everyone reacts to a remote-only environment differently. Some people thrive while others don’t. It’s important you know which camp your team members fall into.

It’s also important to help them find their rhythm and how they replenish their own energy levels. Find out what’s important to your team members and you’ll find out how they gain and lose energy through different activities.

Two activities that work well for many high achievers are yoga and meditation. Thanks to Martha Valenta everyone at 1904labs has the opportunity to greet the day with their co-workers through yoga.

Created a water coolor room

One of the ideas to recreate the office environment was to create a standing google meet room that acted as our virtual water cooler. We wanted a place to recreate ad-hoc side conversations. This standing room removed friction for quick discussions. We could just hop in the water cooler room.

This also worked well for pair programming. People would announce their headed to the virtual room to work on XYZ feature and others could pair if they wanted.

You can use any video conferencing software that allows you to create a permanent meeting link, like google or zoom.

Set Team Working Hours

This doesn’t have to be the same time for everyone and it may not be normal working hours. Parents working while tending to their kids may need to do their “deep work” at night.

What’s important is your team understands the best time where decisions can be made together.

Used Virtual Whiteboard Software

Since everyone is physically separated we could no longer head to the nearest white board to discuss an idea. To recreate this we use miro.com. Since miro.com is a virtual whiteboard, we can use it for mind-mapping, linking to different resources, and drawing or uploading pictures. We could also collaborate in realtime so it brought the in-person experience closer to home.

Defaulted to Video Meetings

In the beginning we had audio only meetings and we lost so much context. Adding video gave us so many more cues. We could now tell if someone was confused or just quiet. We also raised hands to make sure we don’t interrupt the person speaking but still notify the speaker that we have a question or comment we want to make. This avoided people talking over each other which was unavoidable when we were audio-only.

I’ve also drawn pictures on my video calls to make sure I understood the person speaking. If they’re describing something, I quickly drew it out and then held my crude picture to the camera and asked if it’s correct. This worked wonders for removing misassumptions or misunderstandings.

Over-Communicated

The last lesson is that communicating effectively when your fully remote requires more thought and more effort. There’s a level of laziness allowed when everyone is physically present. That luxury is removed when everyone is remote.

As a team we communicated when we’re taking breaks, grabbing lunch, and signing off. These activities were obvious when we were in the office but now they needed to be explicitly stated.

When we use Slack, we try to keep conversations threaded as much as possible. This keeps conversation topics grouped together and reduced cognitive load created by trying to derive context in hodgepodge of disparate messages.

We’re not done…

Learning how to become a highly-productive remote team is an ongoing challenge but these are a handful of changes we made quickly to transition to fully remote. Some of these were explicitly written into our team agreement and others were more guidelines. As we learn more we change and adjust as needed. I mean “hey, we’re agile.”

If you found this post helpful, please sign up for my newsletter at niarcas.com. In it I share more long form essays on managing software teams, human-centered research and design and servant leadership.

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Niarcas Jeffrey

Niarcas Jeffrey

I write about managing software teams and building software products through human-centered and agile processes.