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How to Use Agile to Manage a Remote Team

You manage a remote team and heard about how Agile increased productivity in the software industry. You’ve seen the fruits an Agile approach and are wondering how to make the magic happen with a remote team.

Is it even possible? You bet it is! At DistantJob, we use it in all our teams, from recruiting to marketing. Agile enables our lean teams to tackle massive undertakings quickly. Not convinced? We’ve put together a free ebook with a primer to Agile as a remote solution and several case studies. It’s a fast read, so grab it if you’re not familiar with Agile in general.

Our remote teams do Agile using a “Scrumban” method. “Scrumban” means that we take a bit from two popular Agile frameworks, “Scrum” and “Kanban.” Whoa, weird names already? Don’t worry –  we’re going to keep this light on theory and heavy on practical stuff.

It all starts with the daily standup

A daily meeting with all hands on deck – that’s the heartbeat of our Agile process. Sounds weird for a remote company, right? After all, any of our teams might have people spread across five different time zones! But there is no denying the benefits of everyone knowing what everyone else is up to on any given day.

The stand-up helps the team bond across a shared purpose.  This meeting helps everyone understand that they’re not working in solitude. They’re not waiting for, or handing off, work to faceless entities on the other side of the computer. The daily standup also helps people understand how their work impacts the rest of the team.

Our daily stand-ups follow a simple formula. Each person tells the team:

  1. What they accomplished yesterday.
  2. What they will work on today.
  3. If anything is blocking one or more of their tasks.

When everyone does this, it’s easy to identify people blocked by interdependent tasks. But the point of the stand-up is not to solve problems; only to recognize them. If Sue thinks she can solve my blocker, she’ll say so and the stand-up moves on; it’s up to us to connect after the meeting. This way, the stand-up will take a breezy 15 minutes max, and the team can get back to work.

So about the timezone thing… You don’t need to hold you daily stand-up right at the start of the day. The important thing is that it is at the same time every day. In our case, this means the early morning for some team members, and middle of the afternoon for others. Consistency is the most crucial factor.

Video is also a must. Again, it helps with team bonding, and body language helps clarify a lot of stuff. If someone can’t make it, they are responsible for posting their answers in the team’s Slack channel.  Everyone can refer to them during the stand-up.

Everything goes on the board

We have a Trello board for each team. Within that team, all tasks live on that board. If it’s not on the board, it doesn’t exist. We label three different kinds of tasks: epics, user-stories, and, well, tasks.

An epic is a long-term goal that will likely take several weeks to achieve and can be broken up into several tasks. An user-story is a complex task or series of tasks that we estimate we can complete within a single work-week. The rest of the cards represent the regular tasks that make up the epics and user stories. An individual member of the team can usually handle it.

Every card has someone assigned to it. The person whose face is on the card is the decision-maker (owner) of that card. This is true even if it’s an epic or user-story that requires the work effort of several members of the team. It’s up to the owner to make it happen and manage the other people involved.

Doing this helps people take ownership and creates a culture of servant-leaders. Everyone gets to lead epics and user-stories, but also supports others in their tasks.

For this to work in a remote setting, communication is paramount, and that’s where Trello comes in. We make sure that each card has all the relevant attachments and info needed to make it happen. It’s easier than ever, as Trello recently added the option to attach other cards. We attach interconnected tasks to one another and keep often used materials in “Resource” cards.

Everything in the same place means anyone tagged to a card should have all they need to pick up the task and run with it.

At DistantJob, we separate all cards into one of the following columns:

  • Backlog – stuff that is going to be done someday, but not this week
  • Epics – The team’s current goals live here. The epics here will inform what we should prioritize in moving from the backlog and into the sprint. Epics that we don’t have the bandwidth to do any tasks toward go into the backlog.
  • Sprint – Stuff that we commit to getting done this week.
  • Doing – People drag work-in-progress here. It helps everyone be aware of what everyone else is working on.
  • Blocked – A card goes here if the person responsible can’t figure out how to progress and needs help.
  • Quality Control – A card goes here if the task requires someone’s feedback and/or approval to be declared “done.”
  • Done – Time to do the victory dance and grab a cold one – a card here is a task accomplished.

Figure out what worked, what didn’t, and what’s up next week

At the end of the week, the team has a more extended, two-part meeting. On part one, we go through all the tasks from last week. We figure out what went well with the tasks that we closed, and what could have helped us settle the ones that we didn’t. The steps toward improving the process go into the backlog.

For this to be smooth, the team needs to get used to being through in keeping notes in the description of each card. Again, it’s vital that this happens in a video conference. Feedback can sound harsher than it is when it’s read on email or Slack rather than delivered by a human face. Of course, the person coordinating the meeting – the “Scrum Master” – should be taking notes.

Finally, the team totals up their “score” from the tasks in the “Done” column and compare with the “score” from the tasks undone. This works as a rough barometer of how well they did.

On the meeting’s second half, the team builds a roadmap for the week ahead. They populate the Sprint column with tasks from the Backlog, according to the Epic goals. Everyone in the team has a chance to voice why they think a task should have priority in pursuit of a given epic.

Once a task goes into the Sprint, the person that takes ownership of it gets to attribute it “Effort Points.” EPs are a subjective estimation of how hard a task will be to pull off within the sprint/week. They are also what we use to measure team productivity at the end of each sprint – the “score.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to being Agile than the above. But these are the three pillars that we use to make sure our remote teams stay Agile. It’s about being able to maintain a good communication flow between everyone in the team. It’s also about making sure everyone has access to the information needed to do their work.

Get this right, and the rest clicks into place in the fashion that works the best for your team.

Still not convinced? Check out our free eBook about how Agile can work in remote teams.

About the Author:

Luis Magalhães is content manager and editor-in-chief at the DistantJob Blog. He writes about how to build and manage remote teams, and the benefits of hiring remote workers.

He‘s been managing editorial teams remotely for the past 15 years, and training teammates to do so for nearly as long.

Get in touch with him via Luis[at]distantjob.com or by tweeting @distantjob

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