by Maria Korolov

Remote agile development: Top tips and tools for managing dispersed teams

Apr 23, 2020
Agile DevelopmentCollaboration SoftwareEnterprise Applications

The coronavirus pandemic has agile teams adjusting to asynchronous remote collaboration. IT leaders who have spearheaded the agile development efforts of far-flung teams share their tips for success.

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Credit: LightFieldStudios / Getty Images

Shelter-in-place orders around the world are forcing more and more employees to work remotely. And while flexible workplace strategies have gained traction of late, for many teams, the pandemic’s push toward full-team remote work and collaboration has presented challenges. Agile development teams, in particular, often lean on processes undertaken largely in-person, leaving many team leaders anxious about how to approach these facets in remote-only environments.

Managing performance, for one.

Eugene Granovsky, founder and CEO of Bellawatt, has worked in both centralized offices and in companies that had distributed teams. His current company, which writes software for the energy sector and counts the Department of Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric and Amazon’s energy services team among its customers, has been remote from day one.

“In an office setting, you can get by by showing up early, leaving late, typing furiously at the keyboard, and quite often it’s detrimental to the product,” he says.

With a remote workforce, setting explicit deliverables and measuring performance based on how team members meet those deliverables is the biggest difference, he says.

Still, while that may sound clear-cut, managing agile development in distributed work environments to achieve those goals takes considerable finesse — especially when it comes to fostering the level of collaboration necessary for agile to thrive. Here, Granovsky and other IT leaders who have spearheaded agile efforts of far-flung teams share their tips for success.

Planning and communication are crucial

For distributed agile workforces, especially those in which team members set their own hours, planning and communication are paramount, Granovsky says.

Just as managers can’t glance over at a team member to see how they’re doing, developers can’t turn around and ask for immediate clarification if they’re not completely clear on their assigned task.

“In an office, you don’t have to give all the information they need to do their job,” he says. “You can give them the 90 percent that they need to start working, and then they can come up to you to get the other 10 percent.”

You can’t do that remotely, he says, unless everyone is hanging out in a Slack channel all the time.

“Being remote forces you to do things the way you should be doing them, but earlier and better,” Granovsky says, planning and communication in particular.

Tools for asynchronous communication

For distributed workforces, rounding up the right set of collaboration tools is key. Daily standups, and other such in-person agile mainstays, can be challenging to replicate in remote-team environments, especially across disparate time zones. Here, tools that facilitate clear communication in often asynchronous workflows can help.

These days, the go-to communication platform for distributed teams is Slack, but Granovsky, for one isn’t a big fan. “Instead of Slack, we use Twist, which is a little bit more organized than Slack is,” he says. “Slack turns into more of a watercooler, which is more distracting than productive.”

When it comes to choosing tools, Granovksy advises using the more standard platforms. “We learned the hard way that the most popular tools are popular for a reason,” he says. For Granovsky’s team that means GitHub for tickets and code management, Zoom for video conferencing, and Google Docs for knowledge sharing and whiteboards.

The virtual scrum board

If there is any tool that epitomizes the agile experience, it is the office scrum board — those collaboration space anchor points covered with sticky notes that team members can easily glance at to get an instant view of project progress.

At Greenphire, a payments company for clinical trials, the agile development process is centered around scrum boards, says CTO David Wallace. IT and engineering teams typically work together every day in the same office, he says, but as of March 19, as the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., the company activated its business continuity plan.

“We were going into uncharted territory,” he says. And particularly with the pandemic, it’s important to have financial systems in place to support clinical trials, he adds, so Greenphire couldn’t miss a beat.

“The physical scrum walls are for camaraderie and team building,” he says. “But we always maintained virtual scrum boards also. So today, we have the exact same scrum teams using virtual scrum boards.”

To keep its now fully remote team on the same page, Greenphire now relies exclusively on Jira Scrum Board — no Post-Its necessary.

Getting whiteboarding right

For agile teams, whiteboards are essential for mapping out everything from project plans, to sprints and tasks. Greenphire is a heavy user of whiteboarding for story mapping, which is where agile teams diagram user activities as part of the development process. “And it has usually been done in person,” says Wallace.

However, the company’s remote team in Vietnam has been using the whiteboarding tool built into the Zoom video conferencing system. “It was a lessons-learned from another department that has come in especially useful now,” he says. “And it’s helping to keep the same touch and feel from our in-person brainstorms.”

Other whiteboarding tools popular with agile development teams include Miro, Mural, Trello and Weave.

Jen Krieger, chief agilist for the products and technologies division at Red Hat, is particularly fond of Mural.

“It’s a really great tool that my team is looking into using more,” she says. “For example, you can do a fishbone — it’s like a whiteboard replacement with all the agile coach templates re-created in it. It’s pretty amazing. It lets you do dot voting, which is a huge thing for agile coaches.”

Video conferencing: Your standup stand-in

Video conferencing platform Zoom has become an all-around valuable player during this shelter-in-place era. It is simple to use, its basic functionality is free, and it includes built-in whiteboards, chat, breakout rooms and easy screen sharing. For agile teams thrust into remote collaboration of late, Zoom has been a go-to solution for meeting times.

But video conferencing options abound. Some companies use a combination of Microsoft’s Skype and Teams products. Then there is Google Hangouts. Sococo is another virtual meeting tool that combines video, chat and screen sharing into an office metaphor.

“It’s about finding the ones that fit your team,” says Emilia Breton-Lake, agile coach with Accenture SolutionsIQ.

Breton-Lake suggests teams agree ahead of time how video conferencing tools will be used so people will know what is expected of them — and to ensure everyone is engaged on the calls.

“With the last team I worked with, we don’t care if your office is messy or your hair is done or your makeup is done, but what we care about is seeing your face,” she says. “We don’t care if there’s noise in your background from your dog or your kids, but it’s important not to be on mute so you can hear small vocal reactions — like ‘huh’ — that you would hear face to face.”

Making the most of remote face-to-face time

In addition to setting expectations around video conferencing, it’s also important to note that running virtual meetings takes different skills on the part of the Scrum master or facilitator, Breton-Lake says. In an in-person meeting, most people don’t want to be rude and open up their phone or laptop and check emails. “But when you’re talking about virtual meetings, those other things are sitting right there on the same computer. It’s really easy for people to space out,” she says.

The first step is getting the right people into the meeting. If someone doesn’t need to be in a meeting, but does need to be informed about decisions made, they can just get an email. “Having purposeful meetings becomes ten times more important,” she says.

It helps if you can see everyone’s face all the time and that they don’t go on mute — unless there’s something really disruptive nearby, like a lawn mower. “If I make a joke, I can hear the other people laugh,” she says. “It’s important to have that human connection with the team. It creates trust and all the other things that flow from that.”

One company that uses Zoom for its internal scrum meetings is Scalable Path, a headhunting firm that specializes in finding agile developers. The company builds applications to support internal processes, like a job description generator tool and a software project estimator tool.

“The idea is that you all get in the same room, standing up, and each person says what they accomplished since the day before, what they plan to do today, and if they have questions or blockers,” says CEO Damien Filiatrault. “Doing that in person would be great; you can do it in Zoom.”

It’s possible to do the same thing in writing over, say, Slack, he says, and it can be nice to have a documented record. “But I don’t think people should ever give up talking every day,” he says. “When you talk every day, things come up. You start conversing and then you say, ‘Well, actually, I did have this question.'”

The key is to set definite time limits, he says. “Don’t let the meeting be one where everyone gets comfortable and the next thing you know an hour has gone by,” he says. “It’s tempting to digress into a rabbit hole and talk about a complex issue one developer is having a problem with while everyone else is just sitting around and listening.”

Instead, he suggests allocating, say, five minutes per person, and if an issue does come up, follow up later, in depth, with the key people who would be involved.

“I think people are getting a lot more used to doing online meetings,” he says. “I honestly have come to prefer it. But one thing you lose is the human relationships.”

He suggests that companies that move permanently to a distributed workforce consider regular offsites or team vacations. But there are things that you can do now, during the pandemic, as well.

“Right now, on my team, when we have a little extra time at the end of a call, we talk about how we’re feeling with this whole virus thing,” he says. “We’re getting to connect on a personal level.”

The company also has a book club, he says. “On Slack, we select a book, and read it, and chat about it,” he says. “It’s a watercooler interaction. That’s the hardest part of being remote — you really have to make an effort to establish that kind of culture.”

Pair programming in a distributed environment

Another challenge for distributed agile teams is how to do pair programming when the two developers can’t sit next to one another and pass a keyboard back and forth. While not every agile team practices pair programming, some go even further, to mobbing, where several developers work at one computer.

It’s possible to do the same thing remotely, Granovsky says: “In Visual Studio, which is the most popular code editor, there’s a tool called Live Share that works like a dream with pairing.”

It’s worked better for his company than some of the newer collaboration tools, he adds. “And we’ve really tried them all, and everyone has been frustrated because it turns into one person typing and the other watching via screenshare.”

Creating a productive space at home

Your developers require many tools to be productive at their home offices. They need high-speed internet access, virtual private networks, and multi-factor authentication, for starters. But there are a lot of little things that can make a big difference that your developers might not think about ahead of time, and it’s worthwhile to have an open conversation among your team to help ensure each member is able to establish a productive space at home.

“I’ve been working at home for the majority of the last seven years,” says Joe Tobolski, CTO of Nerdery, a digital services consultancy. “So I’ve got a routine down, and a physical space and a desk setup.”

That’s not always the case for people working from home for the first time — prior to COVID-19, all but about a dozen of Nerdery’s hundreds of developers worked from an office. “We’ve had people with various ergonomic situations at home,” he says. “I’ve been yelling at people working on their couch.”

And people miss multiple monitors, he says. “We instituted a checkout policy so that people can take their docks and monitors home with them.”

It’s also important to have a psychic and physical separation of a work area, to the extent that it’s possible. To that end, Tobolski has repurposed an old TV set into a “do not disturb” sign to warn his family members. Eventually, he says, he might get around to writing the scripts to turn on the sign whenever he’s on a call.

The power of patience

For many team leaders, the shift to managing a remote agile team can bring with it a bit of anxiety about whether the work is getting done — especially when working with developers, who often need long stretches of do-not-disturb work. If you can’t see them, how can you know they are heads-down coding? Plus, children, pets, and other family members can be a common issue for work-at-home employees.

“Am I expecting that they’re going to get a solid eight hours in when they’re dealing with the kids and the house on fire?” Tobolski asks. “No. But if the work gets done, if it’s spread out a little bit, I have no problem with that.”

Plus, there are some significant benefits for some employees that may energize them: No commutes.

“There’s this one nerd who lives two hours from our office,” Tobolski says, referring to a Nerdery colleague in the company’s preferred parlance. “This is ten hours a week that she could get back if she wasn’t commuting. I wonder, if, after all this is done, companies start realizing that maybe this work from home experiment has worked really well.”

The new remote future?

For agile teams figuring out how to collaborate remotely for the first time during this pandemic, they may be getting a glimpse of the future. As companies see their teams successfully navigating this disruption in workflows, some may begin questioning, as Tobolski says, “Do we really need that Class A office space downtown?”

“I’m almost at the point of saying, what do we need this office for?” says Steve Wood, CPO at Boomi, Dell’s cloud integration unit. “Across the board, teams are reporting better collaboration, better teaming, better working.”

Previously, Boomi’s hundreds of agile developers worked in offices in India, the UK, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston. Wood is also seeing the impacts of family dynamics on his developers, especially with children being home-schooled.

“Normally, we can share calendars at work,” he says. “Now we’re seeing that husbands and wives are having to integrate their calendars — we can’t both have a super-important call at nine because our daughter will kill us. I think there will be more work-life integration now than ever before.”

According to Javier Polit, who until February was CIO of Procter & Gamble, and before then, group CIO at Coca-Cola, a company that reorganizes its agile development teams to allow programmers to work remotely is going to see some advantages going forward if it decides to stick with the model.

“I would argue that there’s more opportunities for recruitment,” he says. “You might want to recruit a phenomenal data scientist from Stanford, but they might not want to leave California.”