How should you choose the technology to help your geographically-dispersed team work better together? This interesting question was highlighted by one of the participants at Mark Kilby’s Audacious Salon at Agile 2016 yesterday.
I was attending remotely, from my home office in London, via a sub-optimal video-link, and didn’t catch the guy’s name. But he was wondering why nobody’s offering a course for Scrum Masters in how to do this.
“I could do that!” I thought. And I certainly could – I’ve done a bit of consulting on the topic and I’m an experienced trainer and course designer. Maybe I’ll do it – let me know if you think it’s a good idea.
But more easily, I realised, I could make a few notes here and share what I know.
- “How can I get my remote team working better together?” isn’t likely to be a simple problem. It may be complicated, but it’s most likely to be complex (by Dave Snowden’s Cynefin definitions). Hence, the best decision-making process is probably “probe-sense-respond” rather than “sense-analyse-respond”.
- Potential routes forward will involve people, as well as technology. They’ll involve lots of conversations, as the team members sort out for themselves how to work well together.
- These conversations will probably not be as simple and spontaneous as they would be in co-located teams who share working hours: they might be more like the conversations between people who work on opposite shifts doing the same job. A tetchy post-it-note handover from an overtired night worker won’t make anyone smile. How can you best support those conversations, so that strong working relationships develop?
- Within your team, what kind of communication needs to happen? How much of it is about transmitting information, and how much is about creative collaboration? An Agile software development team probably needs more of the latter, and so will naturally gravitate towards the more sophisticated online communications technologies. But if all you really need is the equivalent of a post-it note, maybe cheaper, simpler approaches will work just as well.
- With a new co-located team you’d probably do some team-building activity to get the social side rolling, even if it was just a Friday-night drink together. Don’t neglect this just because your team is geographically dispersed. If you’re not sure how to make virtual team-building work, this is my specialist area – please contact me.
- When I work with a team, I always want to get everyone on a video call together. If it’s the first time a virtual team has seen each other, it’s quite exciting – like turning on the lights in the office for the first time! It makes an enormous difference to the amount of communication, connection and collaboration that can take place and as a result, people actually stay focussed on the call. These days, video calling over the internet is cheap and reliable, using Zoom (affiliate link).
- The single thing you can do that will make the biggest difference is to get those video cameras turned on for team meetings. But that may lead to other changes in the way you meet. As my friend Lisette Sutherland says, “If one person at a meeting is remote, everyone should be remote.” For best results everyone should connect as an individual, via their own device, with their own, individual webcam and headset. The worst possible set-up is to have everyone standing in a room together, except for one poor person on a dodgy video (or just audio) connection.
- Beyond that, I’m not going to try to make a one-size-fits-all technology recommendation. Things are moving too fast, and there are too many possibilities out there. Some tools work well for some teams but are hated by others (Slack, Sococo, Asana, Trello, Retrium…). But the great thing is that nearly all these tools offer a free trial period, so we’re back to probe-sense-respond. If you know you need a tool to achieve some specific result, you’ll probably be able to find it out there.
My point is this: don’t expect that knowing how to choose the right technology for your remote team will solve the real issue, which is how to get your team working better together.
Put people, relationships and conversations first, turn on the cameras, keep your eyes and ears open, and the rest will follow.