Agile Methodology

7 Common Challenges Faced by Distributed Agile Teams…With Solutions to Boot!

Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)

7 Common Challenges Faced by Distributed Agile Teams…With Solutions to Boot!

7 Common Challenges Faced by Distributed Agile Teams…With Solutions to Boot!

Charting a course for a distributed agile team is no small feat.

Practicing agile fundamentals like face-to-face communication is totally outside the realm of possibility. And it’s pretty tough for teams to feel cohesive when most people haven’t even met one another.

Any sense of “team” easily breaks down when everyone works from separate locations. People can feel like they’re all alone, typing away in their home office with no connection to anyone at all.

The truth is, however, that the agile methodology really can flourish in a remote space. It entails getting creative, and finding solutions to suit each individual team.

Let’s look at some common problems faced by distributed agile teams, alongside methods for working through them. With a little tweaking and practice, you can have a highly motivated team, with strong kinship and connection…even while being spread out across the world.

Time is Wasted in Excessive Meetings

1. Time is Wasted in Excessive Meetings.

It’s common for teams to overcompensate for the challenge of working remotely by holding meeting…after meeting…after meeting. The fact is, however, that people need to use blank slots in their calendar for getting work done.

All this meeting time really adds up. In some instances, remote workers find themselves working two to three more hours per day than in an office! This is a scenario ripe for burnout, with zero potential for team building. No one has time for casual catch-up conversations when they’re completely tuckered out at the end of the day.

Solution:

One of the keys in the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interaction over processes and tools.”

Rather than following a scripted meeting plan, a leader or project manager needs to step out of the way and let the team create a system that balances its work needs with meeting time.

Together, an agile team can determine meeting protocol that works for them. When is it acceptable to opt out of a meeting? Can people leave halfway through, when the content is no longer relevant to their role?

Perhaps a scrum team may jettison one of its ceremonies. But agile isn’t about doing everything by the book—it’s about suiting the needs of individuals.

2. Teams Don’t Trust Each Other.

When teammates haven’t met each other in real life and their daily interaction is limited to email and chat messages, they don’t feel like they know one another.

Trying to implement the agile methodology into a team dynamic that is stiff and formal just won’t cut it. Self-organization, at the heart of agile, only happens when teammates know and trust one another.

Teams Don't Trust Each Other

Solution:

Although it may sound silly to say it, gossip and break time are instrumental in creating team bonds. When you know details about the people you work with, such as what kind of dogs they have, where they grew up, who they’re dating and where they went to school, it makes them relatable.

Strong rapport is the foundation of a high-functioning agile team. This doesn’t “just happen” in a remote environment, however, since people can’t chat in the hallway or meet each other for lunch.

One way to establish personal ties is with a bi-weekly meeting, where the agenda is simply about getting to know what’s going on in people’s lives.

Another way to create a casual “break room” environment is to set up channels on the team’s software, dedicated to fun topics such as pet photos. This gives people the chance to chill out and share common interests with one another.

Teams Never Communicate Face-to-Face

3. Teams Never Communicate Face-to-Face.

One of the principles from the Agile Manifesto is that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Teams miss out on all the benefits of in-person interaction when they communicate exclusively through email and instant messages. All non-verbal communication is lost.

This creates a disconnect that impedes the team’s collaborative endeavors.

Solution:

Although a remote team won’t ever be able to completely receive the benefits of face-to-face communication, it can come pretty close.

When teammates interact through video messages, on a video conference platform or in phone conversations, it brings interaction up to the level of a conversation. People are able to pick up on facial cues, tone and voice inflection.

When teammates create habits of communicating verbally, tasks are completed with greater ease. Text and email have a place too, but are more suitable as follow up to verbal conversations.

People Feel Isolated

4. People Feel Isolated.

Individual team members start to feel fungible when they’re working from a desk in their home, and the only interaction they have are a few emails each day.

When people start to think their contributions don’t really matter, team morale declines.

Solution:

A highly motivated team is at the heart of the agile methodology. Finding ways to boost team spirit is the objective of any scrum master or agile leader.

One way to engage the team is by utilizing a phenomenon called social facilitation. This is the idea that performance improves by the presence or perceived presence of others.

Acknowledging jobs well done and milestones reached goes a long way toward making an employee feel valued and a part of the team. One way to implement social facilitation is by calling out individual performance during the sprint review.

In order for people to feel less alone during the workday, it’s helpful to utilize activities that simulate the office environment as much as possible.

Live remote coworking is one way to do this. This is where team members turn on the video conference platform at their desk, then work as they would on any other day. People can have casual conversations as they work, and are motivated by seeing everyone together at once.

This could feel awkward at first, and so the leader can start with an ice breaker and emphasize that no one is being supervised. Everyone is free to step away from the computer when they want. Depending on the preference of the team, this activity can be for the entire day, or just a part of it.

With engagement practices such as these, teams start to feel bonded and the sense of isolation melts away.

Attention is Divided During Conference Calls

5. Attention is Divided During Conference Calls.

Back in the day of in-person meetings, everyone sat through a presentation in its entirety, even when it got pretty dry.

While sitting in front of a computer, however, and listening to those same presentations, it’s oh-so-difficult to resist all the distractions calling out to us from the world wide interweb. Not a few of us have diverted our attention to reading emails, catching up on the news, and doing a little shopping while intermittently focusing back on the meeting.

Agile is about simplicity, and maximizing the amount of work NOT done. This means utilizing every moment efficiently. When a team regularly divides its attention during a conference call, people have to catch up later on things they missed.

Solution:

In the interest of saving time, it’s important that an agile team allows people to skip out on meetings that don’t impact them directly.

When someone does need to be at a meeting, it’s good to implement systems that keep people engaged. For example, when everyone has their screen monitor on during the meeting, it increases engagement and decreases the likelihood of chronic distraction.

Although everyone has to step away from a meeting from time to time, it’s important, as a policy, that people who show up stay engaged. It builds camaraderie and trust.

The Home Office Distracts Employees

6. The Home Office Distracts Employees.

People have a lot going on in their homes that you’d never encounter at in-person offices. Kids come home from school and need snacks and attention, dogs need to be walked, and Fed Ex shows up with deliveries.

All these distractions create a scenario completely different from the in-person office. When people are not readily available during work hours, the team feels divided and unfocused.

Solution:

One principle from the Agile Manifesto is to: “build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the tools they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

Trust plays a central role in a remote office framework.

Even if someone steps away to fix their kids lunch, it doesn’t mean they are’t committed to getting the job done.

Monitoring employees isn’t the role of the agile leader. Rather, it’s about identifying impediments and course correcting.

Let a team work through these issues and develop a system that works for them. Perhaps when the team is committed to the daily standup, it’s possible for everyone to be flexible for the rest of the day.

It’s also important for the team to keep its focus on the sprint objectives. This way, even when an individual workday looks different from other people’s, everyone is still working toward the same goal.

Command and Control Creeps In

7. Command and Control Creeps In.

Sometimes, teams find themselves in a situation where a few people work from the office, and everyone else is remote. At these times, it’s easy for a dynamic to develop where the in-person crew sets up sprints and updates the burndown chart, while the remote team simply listens and follows orders.

Or, in a completely remote setting, the scrum master may struggle to complete all the ceremonies, and it starts to feel more like he or she is corralling everyone to fall in line.

An agile team is about self motivation and autonomy. An authoritative presence really threatens this structure. Team members stop taking initiative, and fall into the role of following orders.

Solution:

One way to identify “command and control creep” is with a retrospective dedicated to team dynamics.

From there, a team can put policies in place that distribute responsibilities equally throughout the team. Setting up sprints, updating the burndown chart, and grooming the product backlog could become tasks that rotate between in-office and remote workers.

Conclusion

It’s a challenge for a distributed team to follow the agile methodology. However, it is still possible to create an autonomous and highly motivated agile team when people aren’t gathered together in one place.

In order for a team to follow the principles laid out in the Agile Manifesto, it’s necessary for the scrum master or agile coach to think outside the box. Everyone’s solution looks a little different—it depends on the preferences of each individual team.

For some agile methods, a remote environment is even an improvement. Paired programmers say they enjoy remote working better than in-person.

Teamly is a sophisticated project management software that serves as an all-in-one resource to distributed agile teams. From kanban boards, to gantt charts, to messaging services, we make it easy for teams to plan and stay connected from anywhere in the world. Come check us out today!

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