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Distributed agile team? Here’s how to make daily stand-ups work for you.

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on Aug 28, 2019 6:00:00 AM
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Can your remote team members make their voices heard during sprints?

Are you sure?

According to a 2019 survey, almost 70% of people who work remotely feel left out. It’s common, even in scrum teams, to unintentionally create a culture where remote people aren’t quite as connected as everyone else. And with the numbers of distributed agile teams on the rise, it’s more critical than ever to find ways to keep your collaborative mojo, even when face-to-face conversation has to happen over a video call.

Where to start? How about daily stand-up? It’s a cornerstone of team collaboration – top of the list of agile techniques used, according to the 2019 State of Agile report. But it also can leave remote people feeling like a fly-on-the-wall – or worse, not getting invited to the meeting at all.

The good news is improving stand-up meetings for people calling in from home or a different office actually makes it better for everyone, even people at the HQ. Here are 7 things to try.

1. Start on time, every time

Chronic latecomers are a problem – even for teams who are all in the office together. But at least when you’re in the same location, you often know why someone hasn’t shown up yet. Waiting on a conference call is worse. And when you’re juggling many different time zones and schedules, the frustration compounds.

If your team needs an extra nudge to make it on time, Mike Cohn (author of several books on agile and founding member of Scrum Alliance and Agile Alliance) put together a list of incentives and deterrents. My favorite – everyone agrees to pay a small fine for every late arrival and then donate the pool to charity at the end of each sprint.

2. Master the art of time zones

When teams are spread far and wide, time zones aren’t fun. It’s easy to forget people’s hours and then wonder why the developer on the other side of the continent keeps rejecting meeting invites that come exactly when he’s driving his kids to school or about to grab dinner. (When one member of our team left to work remotely in Portugal, she gave us a clock set to her time zone for everyone to reference in the main team space.)

But even when team members are really spread out, usually a couple of hours fall within everyone’s standard workday. That’s your prime real estate for stand-ups, retros and any other meetings that need the whole team. Holding daily stand-up in the afternoon can feel a bit funny, but teams have been successful at making it work. After all, “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” If your team prefers, rotating the stand-up time works for some teams as well.

3. Get visual

It’s hard to feel connected when all you hear is a disembodied voice at the other end of the line. So for all types of remote collaboration, turning on your camera is ideal – especially when a large group is gathered together in one space.

But for agile teams, visualizing the sprint goes beyond this. So in addition to video, use a digital scrum or Kanban board so that everyone can see exactly what’s going on. Being able to see the sprint at a glance and make changes directly to the board can keep team members from feeling like they’re sitting on the sidelines.

4. Reach out to remote workers

When you make the rounds sharing what you need and how you’re blocked, do the people in the room always go first? If so, you could be sending the message that your distributed team members are an afterthought.

Try kicking things off with the people who are calling in from somewhere else. Or have each person choose someone randomly to go next – and make sure it’s not just the in-house people. And if most of your team is together and just one or two people call in, it can help to designate someone in the room to check in on remote engagement – and call out the rest of the team if needed.

5. Take care of the audio

“Can you hear me? What about now? Now?” You never want to start a meeting like this. So make sure you find a room where the audio just works, without constant adjustments and troubleshooting. And more than that – you need a space where people calling in can not only hear the full conversation in the room, but they find it natural for them to take part.

Some traditional audio systems are built for the meetings people used to have – where everyone sits around the table and one person stands at the front and talks. Remote stand-ups can sometimes pose challenges. Check in with whoever’s on the line and make sure they can hear fine, even if people are standing closer to the corner of the room when they talk or facing the scrum board.

6. Keep things fresh

It’s easy for stand-up meetings to become boring. Are your remote team members fully engaged – or are they half listening while they return emails? Are your in-room participants staying focused – or are they checking their phones?

If stand-up is getting stale, try something different to shake things up. Rather than going through the usual done/doing/blocks conversation, reframe it (while still getting the same points across). Elizabeth Harrin (award-winning blogger, author and professional project manager) tried different questions – What made you unhappy yesterday? What will make you happy today? – and then everyone added a song to the team playlist. Here’s a few more of her creative stand-up ideas.

7. Reinvent as much as you need

Tried all that and stand-up meetings still aren’t working for your distributed team? That’s okay, too. After all, agile is all about responding to change. Doing a traditional daily scrum just for the sake of doing it doesn’t make sense.

For some teams, stand-up might need to evolve to something more flexible – one team swapped the usual stand-up approach for a remote daily cafe so teams can stay connected over distance and raise any big roadblocks or issues. Other teams may find that a combo of two or three stand-ups a week plus asynchronous communication on shared tools is enough to keep a dispersed team moving in the same direction.

Whether you’re doing stand-up meetings, estimating stories or holding retrospectives, you’re only as connected as your least connected team member. And the time you put into making agile work for your entire distributed team pays off – in better builds and more motivated people.

How do you involve your remote team members in daily stand-up meetings? Any other tips? Let us know!


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Topics: Agile Remote Work