The switch to remote work has brought many challenges to the workplace, none greater than adapting to this new style of work in various applicable fields. As you aptly perceive, software development is one of those select fields suitable for remote work. For example, GitLab has been the largest, fully remote company for years now. However, just because the field is suitable for remote work does not mean the transition to said remote work will be without any bumps along the way. Herein we’d like to discuss four prime challenges that Scrum masters are facing when working remotely with their team.
Effective, Healthy Communication
First let’s begin with communication. Not seeing people in the office regularly can have a variety of initial short-term negative effects, and some that linger longer. Face to face communication is still the norm and what our brains react most actively to in any situation. When someone is physically in front of you, ignoring them is not a realistic option. However, switch that to an online environment and suddenly you discover many shortcomings in peoples’ communication manner, habit and style.
Direct from the Agile manifesto, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” This will likely hold true for centuries to come though as technology marches on, so too must we in adapting to how it affects our lives. It’s therefore vital for the Scrum master to ensure communication does not break down within the team just because the members are not in the same physical space together.
Ensuring good Communication
Team building is essential and doing so remotely requires members to turn the camera on during video calls for the sake of creating empathy and bonds between team members. Seeing peoples’ faces, their expressions and body language is irreplaceable for interaction and healthy effective communication. As Scrum master it’s imperative to set the communication expectations and guidelines at the onset of the team project. During ceremonies and standup, all members’ cameras must be on with no exceptions.
What else would follow communication besides collaboration, the two go hand in hand; development is a team effort. In order to get maximum collaboration, transparency is a must. Not only because it’s a necessity for scrum, but more so now as the team is spread over a variety of areas; perhaps even working from different countries and time zones. When the teams were in the office previously, it was simple for the Scrum master to keep tabs on what everyone is working on to manage more effectively, support them and extract the highest productivity from the team.
Now in a remote environment the Scrum master is between a rock and a hard place. To navigate the obstacle first address the communication issues and second insist on transparency. Don’t forget the Scrum master’s task is to drive the team forward in developing the best possible product at their optimal velocity. To do this the Scrum master needs to know what everyone is doing, not for micromanaging, but rather to increase team efficiency, boost collaboration, solve problems and so on.
For example, if the backend developers have an issue and need to speak with the frontend developers, when they’re all in separate locations this turns a previously simple office conversation across desks into scheduling gymnastics to find the time to meet online. Daily standup is another key scrum activity that, though online now, needs to be maintained so the Scrum master can be prepared to maximize collaboration and head off any potential issues on the horizon.
So ensuring good communication which in turn will stabilize and ensure team collaboration, daily online tools are needed which can replace the natural instant face-to-face interaction. Make sure the team is equipped to properly use apps like Slack, WhatsApp and Discord with agreed upon best communication practices. These can actively be used for asking questions, addressing problems, making announcements and so on. The other key point which will ensure and drive collaboration is pair programming and pair discussion. As Scrum master, set these points up and actively ensure that they’re being employed and you should see a positive collaboration outcome. Once deploying the tools and agreeing on the best practices for communication and collaboration, you must simply trust your team to manage themselves and deliver the goods.
One of the most key accountabilities of the Scrum master is to facilitate ceremonies and other important meetings. Facilitation is a skill one develops through experience and most of us hone our offline meeting facilitation skill, and therein lies the catch. Facilitating an online meeting brings a new set of challenges that Scrum masters need to be prepared to handle. In an offline meeting you get together with your team members in the same physical space, face-to-face, use a whiteboard for brainstorming, sticky notes, have some coffee and a grand ol’ chat and so on. Oh me, oh my are those days behind you now; prepare for the dawn of a new era.
An online meeting will require the Scrum master to actively make the meeting more interesting; something that instinctively happens when in person, but needs a kick start online. The whiteboard is history so you might want to keep abreast of the latest in interactive online tools; as well, project management tools. To name a few there is Jira, Asana, Trello, etc.; plus interactive tools like Miro, Jamboard, Mural and more. Naturally we don’t want to leave out the obvious video tools like Google Meet and Zoom, and the tools these services feature therein; breakout rooms can be very useful.
As Scrum master, for online interactive productive scrum ceremonies, workshops or other remote meetings you need to be great, not just good, so pull out all the stops and wow the audience.
Finally and dare I say what should not need to be said, the Scrum master must be effective. This is unchanged from pre-remote working days. However, being effective now comes with a new set of challenges previously never even considered. With remote working, time is even more of the essence so using your time wisely and judiciously is a must. Your meeting frequency and amount will increase now so the validity and value of those meetings needs to be carefully evaluated; if it can be cut or merged into another one, don’t hesitate to do so if you can maintain or even increase effectiveness. There is no room for interruptions as time is a commodity you have even less of now.
Ultimately the Scrum master’s effectiveness is detrimentally impacted by the shift to remote working; however, all is not lost. Here again the online tools are going to be your new best friends. Part of your role as Scrum master is to optimize interaction within the team; therefore, start today to become well versed with all of what’s available so you can continue to be the most effective Scrum master you’ve always been.
All of this leads to multiple benefits for both company and employee. When managed properly and adapted accordingly to the new environment, scrum teams will naturally and neatly return to the agile flow of project management yet remotely. Simultaneously the company can save money on not needing a dedicated office space while employees can be free to manage their own time giving them a better work life balance to ensure there is always time for their families!
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