Distributed Agile Teams and the Telecommuting Naysayers

hand-1592415_960_720There are a lot of beliefs out there about telecommute/remote working environments that are just plain false. People seem to have the belief that if I cannot see you, we cannot possibly collaborate together efficiently.

You want to talk to your coworker Bob, how would you do it? In a colocated team you could turn to Bob and say what you needed to say. In a distributed team you could click on Bob’s name and message him, email him, or call him. Both methods are fairly simple and effective from the standpoint of the individual. You don’t really need to know who Bob is as a person, you just need to know that Bob exists, and he is the proper person to address your communication to. I am sure Bob is a great person and you would be lucky to get to know him (you can still do that and telecommute, more on that later). But it isn’t required to know Bob as a person to hold a discussion with Bob regarding your work request.

What if Bob wasn’t at his desk when you needed him?

office-932926_960_720Well, if you are a co-located team, perhaps you osmotically learned that Bob was in a meeting. More than likely, you weren’t paying attention (or you had earplugs in) and you have no idea where Bob is. So, what do you do then?

  • You could walk around and look for Bob, but that would probably be inefficient and a waste of time.
  • You could ask someone where Bob is.
  • You could ensure that you and Bob share electronic calendars with each other so you know his meeting schedule.
  • You could wait for Bob to return and work on a different task while you wait.

If you are on a distributed team and Bob does not reply to your messages, what do you do then? Well, if you are using the right tools and Bob did what he was supposed to – you wouldn’t need to even message Bob. The icon next to his name could show him as being away from his computer, or some other indicator. Bob may even take his computer with him to the meeting and he may see your email come in. Bob can call you when he is available; you can work on something else and wait. If things are so urgent that they cannot wait for Bob, it may be time to investigate how things became that urgent to begin with (or evaluate whether it actually is that urgent).

The difference between the two scenarios is really small assuming in both cases people planned ahead. They keep each other updated through calendar tools. They use the right communication tools and update their status within those tools. The telecommuting option just may require Bob to put forth a little effort and respond back to requests.

Books on Managing Virtual/Remote Team

What about becoming a cohesive team working as one towards a common goal?

office-1209640_960_720I assume you have work to do as part of your role on the team. Do you know what that work is and your part in it? If not, you can still hold a meeting with Bob and the other team members. If you do know what that work is, then you shouldn’t need to talk about what you are going to do and you should instead be doing it.

I assume; however, this question would be more targeted at getting to know your teammates on a more personal level. You want to know who you are dealing with as a person, find common ground to identify with them, and satisfy a human requirement for socialization. I have included below several links with ideas on virtual team building exercises, but I am going to discuss what has worked for teams I have been on.

  1. Take the time to talk to each other about things other than work. You have an hour-long meeting scheduled via teleconference, take 10 minutes to catch up with your team. I knew my former manager’s daughter likes to play some of the same video games I do, and I never met that manager in person. I know about her dogs, what she likes to do in her free time. I know probably more about her than many prior managers I have worked with in person.
  2. Exchange pictures with each other. Pictures of family, pets, yourself even – so coworkers can see what you look like. This is about showing who we are by showing others the things we love and are passionate about. Coworkers I have never met have seen pictures of my dog Roxy, my family, the 12 acres of woodland I bought last year, and unfortunately for them – some of my vacation photos.
  3. Ask questions. People love talking about themselves and the things they enjoy. Have the team ask questions about each other. It has the effect of letting the team get to know each other and the individuals get to talk about things they enjoy. This helps to foster positive feelings towards each other.

These practices should also not be limited to telecommuting teams.

We tend to assume that co-located teams will just naturally get to know each other and form a cohesive unit. That doesn’t usually happen, and it can have devastating consequences for the team when it doesn’t work well. If you naturally let teams go, you will almost always end up with sub-groups being formed within the team. This is okay, for general purposes, but doesn’t exactly form a cohesive team and doesn’t really let people outside of the groups get to know each other. The “Agile Project Manager” must let the team self-organize, but they also have to work to remove impediments. This could be regarded as an impediment.

The point being, for distributed and co-located teams, forming a cohesive team tends to take some effort. I hear constantly how virtual teams require special effort – no they don’t. They require a slightly different method of an effort that should be occurring no matter what.

Neglecting that effort can have negative consequences. It makes no difference what type of team you are working with when it comes to having a process in place. The only thing that should change are the specifics of your approach within the process.


What about technical glitches that interfere with communication?

broken-business-2237920_960_720It can be frustrating to try and get into a meeting and encounter technical issues. If possible, alternatives should be arranged. Calling in at least through a telephone if desktop sharing is not functioning so that you can maybe get some insight into the details of the meeting. On a couple of occasions in my telecommuting roles, I have had to use my cell phone to get my work computer on the Internet when my home Internet went out (this is not always an option for some of the more secure roles I have been in).

Sometimes the only solution is to wait for the problem to be fixed. If possible, do whatever work you can do until the problem is resolved. If you receive a status update on when your issue will be corrected, attempt to reach out to your team to let them know when the issue will be resolved – using a phone to call them if possible, or a quick note through email using your cell phone. It really depends on the nature of the glitch you are experiencing.

We’re not going to get around this one. Technical issues happen, and they can certainly impact communication. It can prevent a team member from joining a virtual meeting, logging onto the VPN, or messaging in with urgent questions. Internet connections can go out, computers crash. Technical issues can be mitigated, they should be tracked, and the system certainly should be repaired as soon as possible.


But the Scrum Master/ Agile Project Manager / “Whatever you want to call it for your flavor of Agile” is supposed to be a hands-on role!

holding-hands-858005_960_720.jpgNot really. Hands-on is often code for hand holding. I would say the “Agile Project Manager” should be involved and facilitative. You don’t need to be physically present to be involved and facilitative. That is more a psychological reaction to just not grasping that you can do things and impact the world without being physically present. It may even be a result of fear of not being in control; but you shouldn’t really be in control to begin with, you are a servant-leader.

This servant-leadership aspect is a huge difference between Agile and a predictive project model. When it comes to telecommuting the benefits tend to favor Agile. As an Agile project manager, you shouldn’t have to make sure the team is doing what they are supposed to do. The result of their work is the measure of success.

For project managers who have only worked on predictive projects in the past, this servant-leadership can be the hardest part to adapt to. However, the morale boost to the development team can be huge and well worth the effort of adapting. No one wants a babysitter all day micromanaging their work, they want to be a respected and contributing member of the team. Let the need to control everything go and you focus on facilitating the communication and being involved enough to know when impediments need to be removed. You have work to do, and it isn’t being a babysitter. This is a philosophy all managers everywhere should adopt – project or not.

This is also true whether you are co-located or not. The methods you use to do your job will just be a little different. If an “Agile Project Manager” is too hands-on in either type of working environment, the dynamic changes from a self-organizing team to one that is organized by the “Agile Project Manager”.


What about team members who screw off when they should be working?

children-593313_960_720.jpgThere is a reason the acronym NSFW (Not Safe For Work) came into existence, and it wasn’t because of telecommuters. Yes, some employees may be doing things during working hours that they shouldn’t be doing. That isn’t a uniquely telecommuting employee problem.

I recall a project I was on where the environment was in a large open office. There were multiple teams and individual contributors on various projects all co-located together. You couldn’t walk from one end to other without seeing someone watching YouTube videos, playing a Pokémon trading card game, or in some cases working with their eyes closed (that means sleeping). This can happen anywhere, telecommuter or not.

The key here is to focus on the results. You can say you would walk in and put a stop to it all you want, but that is more a reactive solution to the problem. For all you know, they had all their work done and they are waiting for Bob to get back from his meeting to figure out what to do next. It isn’t terribly easy to jump in at random times and help someone else on their project tasks when you know you only have a few minutes before Bob gets back.

I know in the case of the guy I caught sleeping, he had been there since 3 AM. He was a salaried employee and had been working almost 12 hours. As far as I was concerned he earned the right to take a little nap in his chair (I was actually impressed he could sleep with all the noise). The problem in that situation wasn’t him sleeping, it was the events that led up to him being there at 3 AM.

People may abuse the system and fail to work when they are required to. It happens, figure it out and move on. Most people will do the work or have a pretty good reason for their lack of focus. It doesn’t matter if they telecommute, have their own office, or are a member of a co-located team. The measure of success is ultimately in the working finished product.


There are differences between working with a telecommuting Agile team and a co-located one. Most of those differences just require the team and/or business to change how things are done; things that should already be part of an established process. It may not be easy to adapt to for everyone and it may require changing how you think about work and communication.

With effort and some practice at it, communicating in a telecommuting team can become as easy as working in an office. But with telecommuting, you get less of the hassle and cost for both employee and employer. Telecommuting may not work well for all individuals. It does seem to take a certain mindset and can be a little more hectic at times. And technical issues can certainly crop up and cause interruptions to communication.

That being said, I don’t think the idea of telecommuting should be immediately abandoned because of a fear of possible communication problems or because some people cannot handle the responsibility. Both types of teams, of course, have their advantages and disadvantages. My experience has been that the ability to telecommute has at the very least created teams as effective as co-located teams and sometimes more effective.




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Virtual Team Building

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