November 18, 2021

From Face-to-Face to Remote Agile
The 6th principle of the Agile Manifesto states that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” This principle instilled in us that face-to-face collaboration is critical to our way of working. We prefer conversations to emails. We walk over to a teammate’s cubicle to quickly validate points. We conduct dynamic standup meetings where we make decisions as a team. When the COVID-19 lockdowns threatened to rob us of conversations, non-verbal cues, and personal rapport, Agile teams were quick to pivot, as Agile teams were supposed to do. We moved our conversations to video conferencing, digital whiteboards, chat apps, shared docs, and the lot. We appreciated not having to go through traffic to make it in time for the standup meeting. We brought enthusiasm into making a remote setup work because it had to work. Not every Agile team or practitioner was immediately successful, though. The Agile world was rocked with challenges:
  • Unstable internet connection can be a distraction and a hindrance to a productive meeting
  • Coordination is especially difficult when teams are in different time zones or even if they are just following different work schedules
  • Team dynamic and rapport degraded when you are not all in the same location
  • Some team members even had to deal with household distractions
Still, almost 2 years later, Agile teams have resolved to make it work. Our own Stratpoint Agile teams have successfully completed dozens of sprints for our clients without stepping into their offices. We reminded ourselves that the Agile Manifesto was crafted in 2001, during a time when most of us worked in a single location. Two decades and more than a handful of communication apps later, we should be able to adapt and remain collaborative while in a different working environment. We are happy to share here some tactics we applied to transition from face-to-face to remote Agile.  

Normalize video

While we are used to conducting meetings, sprint retrospectives, project reports, sprint planning, and more through video conferencing by now, many still hesitate to turn on their cameras. While Zoom fatigue is real, visuals are important. Beforehand, agree on whether it will be a mandatory camera-on meeting or if you can manage to get points across without it. Meetings that involve giving feedback or negotiations, for example, easily merit requiring the attendees to show themselves on camera. Even when we just need to speak one-on-one with a teammate, text, images, and emojis simply cannot capture the entirety of one’s message. When we turn on video, we are able to see our colleague’s non-linguistic cues. We can see their facial expressions and hear their tone of voice. We can tell better if they are upset or if something is bothering them. We have more context about what they are saying and how they are saying it, and we will be able to respond better. So if what you have to ask your colleague is something that used to be resolved by walking over to their cubicle, then it is best to launch a video chat and arrive at a decision in minutes. We do have to respect each other’s privacy now that we have a combined work and home life, but a simple status message on your messaging app can signal how you prefer to be contacted at any given time.  

Establish new practices for meetings

You cannot conduct the same in-person standup meeting online. Some rules have to change so you can adapt Agile ceremonies while in a distributed team setup. 
  • Be intentional about inviting people to and attending meetings. Online meetings require more energy from us to engage, so to be respectful about people’s time and energy, make sure everyone in the attendee list is able to contribute.
  • Take turns to speak, round-robin style. It will ensure that everyone gets their chance to be heard, despite having spotty internet, a turned-off camera, or simply more enthusiastic teammates. 
  • Allot for more prep time before going into a meeting to make sure you jot down and cover all points that need to be discussed. Also agree on what can be resolved offline so as not to waste the time of other attendees.
  • Ask questions every few minutes or after you cover each topic to validate understanding (and to make sure everyone is still awake!).

Agree on tools and master them

Is it Zoom or Google Meet? Skype or Viber? Agree on a single set of tools to communicate with each other, and master their features. It takes precious time and patience to repeatedly request to transfer sharing capabilities or to mute and unmute your mic. Besides, subscriptions to these tools add up — make the most bang for your team’s buck. With our clients, we collaborate through chat software such as Viber, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. For project management updates, we use JIRA and YouTrack so that clients can see our progress in real-time. Through tech, we implement constant communication and transparency, which are important to build trust between both parties, even if we don’t see each other physically.  

Get feedback through frequent check-ins and surveys

Take the pulse of team members through quick surveys. Are they overworked? Excited? Are the new processes working or dragging the team’s progress? While the team is new to surveys, don’t hesitate to keep following up until the response is 100% complete, and until they get used to the routine. Emphasize that the surveys are a safe place to share their ideas, improvements, and feedback and are integral to the success of the project. These will help the leaders make decisions not only on workload but also on process improvement, motivation strategies, and overall team effectiveness.  

Strengthen personal relationships

Surely, it is difficult to replace face-to-face interactions as a way to build a relationship. Onsite, you get to intimately understand how your colleagues work. You know their strengths and weaknesses. Friday night bondings contribute greatly to the working relationship. Still, there are ways to strengthen the bond in a remote setup. Take turns conducting a house tour. Show off hobbies and reading lists. Introduce your family and pets. If you used to have breakfast meetings, bring breakfast to an online meeting anyway. Apart from online drinks and games, the work-from-home setup offers new and more personal insight into the lives of your colleagues: their home life. We have extended these activities outside of the Stratpoint organization by organizing virtual team buildings for our team and the customer’s to get to know each other and establish a relationship outside of the project.  

Time for Agile to be agile

In the true spirit of Agile, our goal in adapting the methodology to work in today’s remote and distributed scenario is not to be perfect, but to be functional. We will still be guided by the principles of the Agile Manifesto, though not to the letter. Face-to-face interaction is a major practice that we need to modify now that we are facing, so to speak, a few more years of socializing cautiously. And that’s okay — it’s not 2001 anymore. Even Agile practices need to be agile.  Stratpoint’s Agile software development teams are all set to be productive and effective despite restrictions in mobility and face-to-face interactions. Let’s explore how we can collaborate! Book a meeting through the form below.