July 29, 2022
Summary: The pandemic has caused a permanent shift in ways of working. For most agile teams, that means that some or all of the members are working remotely. As a coach, I feel that coaching remote teams sucks. It is efficient but not effective.
Let’s start with some agreement on what I mean by coaching remote teams. By “coaching” I mean the work that an agile coach does to support a team to leverage agile and Scrum and self-organize. Scrum Masters also coach as part of their role so this also applies to them even though they do more than just coach.
And when I say remote teams, I mean teams that are partly or completely distributed. Remote team members are not sitting and working together.
Prior to the pandemic, surveys showed that 75% of teams had at least some members who were distributed. During the pandemic, that number shifted to nearly 100% remote. Recently things have shifted slightly though most teams are still remote.
The 2022 State of Agile Coaching report showed that 4% of coaches were working in person, 25% were in a hybrid work environment and a whopping 72% were fully remote (see below),
Note the last line in the diagram above stating that 70.9% of coaches reported a moderate to severe impact on their coaching effectiveness with the move to remote work. You read that right – 70.9% of coaches reported a moderate to severe impact on their coaching effectiveness with the move to remote work.
We will come back to that in a moment.
As a coach, I have found that coaching a remote team is more efficient, for many of the same reasons that work from home is efficient:
So yes it is efficient to coach remotely, but is it effective? I think I’ve already tipped my hand on this.
Coaching remote teams is not effective.
While not the biggest challenge that agile coaches face, being effective when coaching remote teams is definitely a challenge. In addition to the comment I noted earlier from the 2022 State of Agile Coaching Report, check out the diagram below of the top 5 challenges faced by Agile Coaches. “Working remotely” isn’t the top challenge, but it is one more challenge to add to a job that is already pretty challenging.
Why not? Well, there are a variety of reasons and I think it boils down to high-bandwidth communications. The early agile people called it ‘face-to-face’ communications. Let me explain.
My primary role is not agile coach at this time. When I was working as an agile coach, I had the good fortune to work with co-located teams most of the time. I consider myself fortunate in that I trained and coached over 100 teams in the last 10 years and less than 5 of those were distributed teams.
When you are coaching in person with the team, you are able to discern more about what is actually happening than just what people are saying. You can see body language, and reactions, and gauge the temperature in the room. You can feel the energy of the team or the corresponding lack of energy in the team. You can literally read the room.
You also have the benefit of seeing the team interact with each other outside the designated agile events or meetings. This is often where you will get a lot of information about the health of the team. Does the team leverage pair programming or mob programming? Do testers and developers partner together to build high-quality solutions? Or is code tossed over the wall and communications are passed through Jira tickets?
There is no equivalent to that power of direct observation when coaching remotely. If a team uses cameras consistently, you may be able to pick up on some of the body language and nonverbal clues. Unfortunately, most remote team don’t use cameras consistently.
My own experience with training and coaching is that in most meetings, about 1/3 of the participants turn on their cameras when asked. By default, most leave them off even if I request them to turn them on.
I did a poll in LinkedIn last month to try to get a sense of the number of people that use cameras consistently. The LinkedIn poll results are directionally aligned with my experience. There were 611 responses to the poll and 44% said that they use cameras most of the time for team meetings.
The chart above is about camera use during team meetings. However, formal Scrum events should take up only about 20% of a team’s time. How can coaches be effective when they are only seeing a small part of the team’s working day?
If you are coaching remotely, you can’t really be sure what each individual is doing or how the team is interacting outside the meetings.
Unfortunately, many coaches revert to focusing on the tool. They pull up the Jira board and run some reports to discern how the team is doing. They compare plans to actual, an old project management trick. Stories planned vs. completed. Hour estimated vs. actual. This behavior flies directly in the face of the agile value statement: “Individuals and Interactions over Process and Tools”.
It also runs counter to what Lean expert Taichi Ohno recommended:
Unfortunately, when you have remote teams your coaching won’t be effective:
And that effectiveness is what I miss when coaching remote teams. That is why I say that it sucks.
To avoid being all doom and gloom, let’s turn now to some practical steps that coaches can take to make their coaching more effective.
Distributed teams and remote work are the norm for the foreseeable future. Coaching those remote teams is efficient. However, coaches will have to step up their game for that coaching to be effective.