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Post Pandemic Challenge – Most Agile Teams Will Be Partly Distributed

I recently had my first in-person client meeting after 17 months of remote working. Wow, it was almost like I didn’t know how to act.

For some of us, getting back to the workplace is something we look forward to.

There are others who don’t want to or won’t go back to the office. Reasons range from convenience, health and some people have relocated to a place where they cannot join in-person.

What is the “new normal” going to look like for teams? What is it going to look like for the agile coaches and trainers that support those teams? The answer is that most agile teams will be partly distributed. And that is going to create some challenges for trainers and coaches.

Most Agile Teams Will Be Partly Distributed

Let’s start with teams. Most agile teams are going to be partly or completely distributed. The reality is that some people will be in-person in the office and some will be working remotely. Some are calling this hybrid but the net result is going to be that agile team meetings are going to have some people in the room and others either on the phone or on an online tool like Teams or Zoom.

And that is going to change the team dynamics and impact effective communications.

Let’s think about three possible configurations for teams:

#1 – All In-Person – For years I was an advocate for face-to-face working simply because this option provides the richest form of communication available. It speeds discussions, allows for more impromptu discussions (at whiteboards), and reduces waste and rework. [See: Do We Really Need Co-Located Teams and Don’t Use Scrum With Distributed Teams]

Unfortunately, working face to face has never been the default way of working. Prior to the pandemic, only about 20% of teams were completely in person. I predict that post-pandemic, less than 5% will be completely in person.

#2 – All Remote – The second configuration for teams is all remote. During the pandemic, pretty much everyone was remote. Some loved it and want to continue while others thrive on personal interactions and crave social connections. My guess is that we will have 25-30% of teams post-pandemic that will be all remote.

#3 – Partly Distributed Agile Teams – The third configuration, and the one that is going to be most challenging is the partly distributed. Partly distributed teams have some team members that are working face to face while others are working remotely. Some people are calling this hybrid.

This is going to be challenging. Sure we have team tools that support distributed teams like Zoom, MS Teams, and Webex. But how well do those tools work when you have some people in the meeting room and some people remote? Think about each of the typical Scrum events and how you will accomplish them.

  • Sprint Planning
  • Daily Scrum
  • Sprint Review
  • Sprint Retrospective

What about the use of physical information radiators? It seems unlikely that any partly distributed teams will use physical task boards. What they will do instead is act like a distributed team and use the tools that a completely distributed team will use.

And for retrospectives, using a whiteboard as shown below will be difficult or impossible for a partly distributed agile team. But will the partly distributed team all dial in from their own laptop and cubicle? Will they use an online tool like Ideaboardz to support the retro, in effect acting like a completely distributed team? Or will some of them go to a meeting room? How will facilitators balance participation from those in the room with those that are working remotely to make sure that all voices are heard and the team is able to self-organize?

Face to Face Sprint Retrospective Meeting

 

It gets even more challenging if you are scaling agile and you have events that involve multiple agile teams. For example, in Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) there are joint sprint planning and sprint review meetings. These meetings involve multiple teams. Will they only occur online with each person joining from their own workspace?

In the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) there is the PI Planning event that scales multiple teams. This is sometimes called Big Room Planning and the photo below shows the readout from that event. Could PI Planning be held in person again, or will all of that work be done as if everyone was completely remote?

Face to face big room planning or PI planning

Is it just me or is “partly distributed” or “hybrid” going to be the least effective of the three possible modes of working?

Considerations for Agile Trainers Who Support Partly Distributed Agile Teams

The challenge of partly distributed teams is already coming up for agile trainers. Clients are requesting that we teach classes with some people in the room and some joining remotely. I’ve done this before and the mix of two audiences creates some challenges:

#1 – People who are Remote are Frequently Multi-tasking. This is a little less noticeable when everyone is remote but with a mixed group, the people in the room are often working faster than those on the phone.

#2 – Breakouts and Exercises take longer and become more complicated. Dividing up the group for exercises becomes a pain. Sure Zoom and Teams will allow breakouts but they have to be manually configured to group people based on whether they are in the room or remote. And if you have people in the room connecting with those who are remote for the exercise, expect plenty of noise and difficulty hearing for everyone

And once the exercise is done, how do you share the results between the various teams? People working remotely will have to capture their answers in the tool while those in the room can use flip charts and sticky notes. Or do you skip the flip charts and sticky notes and force everyone to use online tools?

#3 – Someone Feels the Pain – When you have some people in the room and some joining remotely, usually one group or the other suffers. Sometimes it is those joining remotely as discussions in the room take priority and the remote participants are ignored. Frequently it is difficult to hear everyone gathered in a room unless the room is wired with multiple microphones.

On the other hand, if someone on the line is having technical difficulties, cannot hear or cannot see, those in the room will suffer. They will be stalled waiting to resolve the tech issues or they may just decide to take a break while those tech issues get sorted out.

#4 – It is More Work for Trainers – Trainers that are trying to manage groups in a room and on the phone have to keep an eye on a lot more things. In fact, it is probably advisable to have a support person who can help monitor the online chat and support the remote breakouts or the in-the-room breakouts.

Considerations for Agile Coaches Who Support Partly Distributed Agile Teams

Similarly are the considerations for those agile coaches who support the partly distributed teams. Here are some considerations:

#1 – Should the agile coach be on-premise or can they be remote? Does it matter where the coach sits when some people are in person and others are remote?

#2 – How can coaches provide equal coaching support to those working in person and those who are remote?

#3 – Will coaches try to get those in-person to go to a conference room for impromptu meetings? How will the remote people join? Will it put the remote participants at a disadvantage?

Agile Coaches and Trainers will Need to be um…Agile

I have probably asked more questions than I have answered. The reality is, the workplace dynamics are going to be complicated in the near term. There will be challenges.

AND of course we will all figure it out. If we have learned nothing else from our collective pandemic experience it is that we need to be Agile. Which means we need to be able to respond to change. And to be able to do it quickly and cheaply, or as Craig Larman once quipped, “turn on a dime for a dime”.

Agile Coaches and Trainers – get ready for the post-pandemic “new normal” of partly distributed teams.

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