Working as a Team in Quarantine

We’ve all been living in the Digital Age, but so many organizations are quickly finding out just how difficult it can be to conduct business as usual when going digital becomes the ONLY option. Some organizations are having to pivot more than others in an effort to keep the day-to-day running as normalized as possible. In fact, 46% of American companies implemented WFH policies as of February. Of course, video conferencing should be somewhat of a given at this point, but that doesn’t solve all of the problems with productively working remote 100% of the time.

There are an abundance of risks and decisions that leadership teams across the globe are having to carefully consider, but one of the questions we’re frequently seeing is much more closely related to individuals just trying to do their job, and do it well, in an abruptly new reality.

Let’s talk about the roles that are reliant on team coordination. These individuals are responsible for pivoting quickly and efficiently enough to reduce time and money lost during this period of unknown timelines, resources, and outcomes. There is a reason that SCRUM operates at its best with co-located teams. You’re about to find out just how self-organizing your team can be, (and as the running internet joke states- just how many meetings really could have been emails). Luckily, your resident millennial and remote SCRUM Master is here to help!

My entire professional career is built around being able to work with teams that are distributed, and, often times, working remotely. Although working with co-located teams is a best-case scenario, it is often not the reality for organizations transitioning to SCRUM, and certainly not for those working with an offshore model. It is still completely possible to lead your teams to a successful and quality delivery. Sure, your stakeholders may have a small window of empathy for delays during this time, but what if you were the SCRUM Master that was able to keep the project on track anyway… or even deliver early?! Our job is to be the voice of reason, and maintain the team’s focus. Whether everyone is in the room, or on the call, that mission does not change. Here are 5 symptoms and solutions for a Remote Scrum Master:

SCHEDULES

In an ideal scenario, we would keep our work days scheduled exactly as they were in the office. We are creatures of routine and habit anyways, why shouldn’t this work now? Well, it’s precisely because we are creatures of routine and habit. We have a work routine, and a home routine, and now those two are completely combined. People often have a hard time integrating these two worlds when they first enter in. This can be due to an introduction of new distractions- kids, pets, spouses, Netflix, etc. Or, in many cases, it’s actually the opposite of distractions, and your team will find themselves overworking, eventually to a state of burnout, because what is stopping them from working when they are already home? The office alarm isn’t going to go off when you leave at 9 pm this time. There’s no rush to close up shop. Here are some solutions to helping your team maintain a “normal” schedule, and prevent burnout or distraction destruction:

–        Keep your meeting schedule as consistent and realistic as possible. When possible, keep your standup, and other sprint ceremonies, at the same time as it was in the office. Consistency provides stability during crisis. If this is not possible, use a polling tool such as polly polls to determine the best time for your team, and remind them that agile is all about being willing to make changes when necessary in support of the people over the project.

–        New Distractions (kids, spouses, pets, Netflix, the refrigerator). Have your team send you the times they believe they will be MOST effective during the day. As SCRUM Masters we are taught to factor in a Focus Factor when planning overall productivity through velocity and capacity for a sprint. This is the time that a team member is truly focused on sprint work (i.e. development)- not emails, not meetings, not their new distractions. If you know the majority of your team has kids at home, and the kids have a two-hour nap time, wouldn’t it be best for you as a SCRUM Master to be knowledgeable to that focus time availability? So gather input from your team on when they believe they will be most productive during their days at home, and do your best to collaborate with the team to self-organize around that schedule. This process also allows the team to have buy-in to the new process, and in many cases, feel as though they have some control over their new work life.

YOUR NEW COWORKER- TECHNOLOGY

Many SCRUM Masters are trained on facilitation techniques that require you to be face-to-face with your team to execute. If you can get everyone on video- awesome, your job is now a little bit easier and you can continue to use techniques such as fist of five and roman thumb! If not, here are some ways you can facilitate your Backlog Refinement, Sprint Planning, and Sprint Retrospective digitally.

–        Hosting Digital Sprint Ceremonies (and the tools that make it possible)

For Backlog Refinement, the important piece of facilitation (outside of clearly communicating requirements) is the estimation process. Whether your team uses story points, t-shirt sizes, hours, or something uniquely yours, you are responsible for getting all of those people in the “room” to align on what the estimation is, and why that is the team’s choice. Some tools I have found useful for estimations are trelloplanningpoker.com, polly polls, or even the old fashioned “type your estimation into the chat”. Start with one card estimation that the entire team can agree on, and then use that card to compare to others- is the next card more effort or less than the team standard?

For the remainder of Sprint Planning, and for your Sprint Retrospective, it is incredibly helpful to utilize an online whiteboard that allows everyone to contribute simultaneously. Microsoft Teams has this experience built-in to the tool. Some other tools available for that purpose specifically are MiroMURAL, and AWW.

 

–        Tech Difficulties

They WILL happen. Plan for your contingency. Internet outages are all too common on a good day, add in a global crisis, and millions of people now working from home on internet intended for average residential use, you don’t want to be the one reporting your project is late because you didn’t plan for outages. If possible, talk to your boss about supporting individual hot spots for your team for the next week. Plan contingency time, and communicate it to your team ahead of time- “if there is an outage, we will utilize our contingency hour from 7-8 am the next morning”. If you choose to use an online tool that ends up glitching right when you need it, how will you facilitate and keep the meeting moving forward? In the case of estimations as mentioned above, if planningpoker fails, use old faithful- the chat! Don’t get stuck having to think on your feet for scenarios that are easily planned for. That’s not hero behavior because you had to sweep in and save the team, that is not doing your due diligence as a leader.

–        If your team is having to adopt new technology (such as the tools mentioned earlier in this article), make sure you research the new tools and fully understand how you can support your team in adopting the new normal as quickly and productively as possible. In some ways, your team is a part of leading a historical movement, be caught on the side of history that shows you were able to be successful in-spite it all through preparation, communication, and collaboration.

THE HUMANS BEHIND THE COMPUTER

At the end of the day, one of the most important things to remember is that although outings and physical social interactions are cancelled, communication and conversation is not. It is still a group of humans working together towards a shared vision.

The Psychology of it All

Outside of the inconveniences you may face as a team, there are some real individual challenges that your team members may face in the coming weeks/months. The American Psychological Association states that people in quarantine, isolation, or even just social distancing could be facing an increase in anxiety and depression, in addition to financial strain, and lack of access to typical coping strategies like going to the gym or church. It’s important to factor in some of the personal realities that your teammates are facing day-to-day in order to realistically lead their professional productivity. Here are some suggestions we recommend for supporting your teammates in digital engagement with optimal productivity in mind:

–        VIDEO: Be on video as much as possible- lead by example, and encourage your team to do the same. Not just your voice, physically turn on the camera in your home office. One of the 12 principles based on the Agile Manifesto is that the most effective method of information communication within a development team is face-to-face conversation, this is your next best option. Not only that, but many people will likely seize the opportunity of being on camera by taking the time to continue to get ready in the morning, instead of wearing the same pair of pajamas for four days in a row. This helps to maintain a sense of consistency and purpose, all the while encouraging social interaction, and an increase in productive collaboration.

–        Intentional Involvement and Praise: It is easy for teams to hide behind the screen during meetings and collaboration sessions when they are doing remote work. Being on video will help this, but it is still not the same as everyone sitting in a room. Make sure your team knows that you expect full participation as if you were all in the conference room, and enforce this by randomly calling on team members throughout each session. Additionally, we know that some of our teammates are easily motivated by genuine and authentic praise, which can sometimes slow down when everyone is in a home office by themselves. Be sure to lead the pack by intentionally calling out when someone is contributing effectively. Encourage the team to write at least one email a week to a co-worker on something they thought was executed well, and then do so yourself.

–        Work-life Integration: This is a great time for people to practice work-life integration, that is utilizing the things that help us in our personal life to progress in our professional life, and vice versa. The goal is to gracefully integrate the two without resulting in complete burnout or total distraction/procrastination. As the SCRUM Master, you facilitate the meetings to be in line with the Agile principles and values, as well as the SCRUM processes. Above all, we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. At the end of each day, schedule a 15 minute “happy hour” or “water cooler” where the team takes ~2 mins/person to talk about the different ways everyone is dealing with their new reality. Encourage the team to try one new thing a week, and then report on the progress during the happy hour! Create a “book club” with your team and recommend a book that relates to team growth that you will spend the last 5 minutes discussing in your happy hour. This guarantees a small social aspect to everyone’s day, provides the team something to look forward to talking about each day, and helps prevent burnout as it signals “closing time” for the working day.

As SCRUM Masters, we thrive off of the “intel” we receive by simply having a conversation with the individuals that make up our team members. This communication is even more necessary now that we have a screen between us and our teammates. Be the leader that works with a purpose. Determine what communication is essential to keeping the project on track, and the humans behind it on-board, and then be intentional in the execution. Most people don’t want to be on a team that they feel like they are not contributing to. So don’t schedule unnecessary meetings just so people can have interaction, but choose your interactions carefully and with significance so that you drive both the project and the team to success!

And for more inspiration for you and your teams, (here is a list of 5 companies that are offering free programs to make remote work easier).

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