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Companies need to embrace distributed Agile teams

No matter where software team members are located, they must work productively. Companies can benefit from having distributed Agile teams.

Although co-location is often espoused as one of the attributes of an Agile environment, it's no longer the reality....

In today's world, software teams must operate productively and efficiently, regardless of the physical location of team members. Luckily, with careful planning, teams not only can overcome obstacles, but can gain advantages from having distributed Agile teams. However, challenges can arise when working with distributed teams. Let's look at how those challenges can be mitigated.

As Elizabeth Woodward, co-author of "A Practical Guide to Distributed Scrum" says, one of the biggest challenges with distributed Agile teams is not around technology, but around establishing strong connection and communication among team members. Many studies show that we communicate in large part with our body posture. Our words may be saying one thing, but our body is showing something else. A scrum master who sees a team member withdraw or act uncomfortable with a decision can probe more deeply and possibly uncover concerns that might have been left unsaid. Hesitancy, discomfort, excitement, anger -- these emotions don't readily show up in emails like they might with a face-to-face discussion.

Face-to-face communication also allows for easier brainstorming about designs or issues someone might be experiencing with code. It's much easier to gather team members around a whiteboard and hash out complex issues when the team is co-located. Many scrum teams prefer a physical board that allows them to easily move sticky notes across the board to show status, rather than using tools that provide electronic boards. Friendships are more likely to form among those team members who are co-located than those who are remote.

In the article, "Distributed Agile: Fostering development collaboration without collocation," leaders are advised to hire strong communicators and team members who follow through on commitments, arranging face-to-face meetings as often as financially reasonable.

Time zone differences

This is a common obstacle experienced by those working with distributed Agile teams. It can be difficult to find a time that allows everyone on a team to participate and contribute to discussions and decisions. Accommodating multiple time zones is particularly challenging for teams that have many members outside of the U.S. For example, outsourcing to India from the U.S. has become increasingly common, but with a 13.5-hour time difference, there are no overlapping business hours.

There are ways to overcome this challenge, however. When teams are being formed, think about how they can be staffed to optimize communication and collaboration. Consider how to split the work into a model that makes the most sense for distributed teams. One team found success by transitioning to a modular approach for code development.

Consider hiring staff for a swing or graveyard shift so the expectation of working hours is set up front. If that isn't possible, consider assigning one person to serve as the liaison between two distributed teams. This person should have strong communication and leadership skills, and be able to clearly converse with team members in any location. Another option is to use written communication between teams when meeting at the same time isn't practical. Although face-to-face communication is good, the written word has advantages as well, especially when communicating with people from a different country. Documentation carries no accent and keeps a written record of status. If there are any misunderstandings, clarification can be sought.

Cultural differences

Cultural differences can cause issues with distributed Agile teams. Although an organization may set certain guidelines to build their corporate culture, geographic culture must be taken into account when working with globally distributed teams. Consultant Valerie Berset-Price gives examples of how Agile values such as trust, respect, self-organization and easy-access communication may be interpreted differently in various geographic cultures.

Building trust and collaboration across geographically distributed teams requires understanding cultural norms. In Asian cultures, for example, employees may have been taught that it's disrespectful to speak up when they disagree. They may say "yes" when asked if they can meet deadlines, even when they may feel they cannot realistically finish the task on time.

This is just one simple example of a cultural difference that can affect strong communication. The Lewis Model of Culture gives a theoretical approach to classifying culture that goes into much more depth. Workshops are available that help organizations and teams understand one another's culture and help to optimize strong teamwork across the miles.

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This was last published in June 2015

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What have your successes been when working with a distributed Agile team?
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Well, we make it work. There are definitely challenges. We have run into time zone issues, but I would say that the lack of face-to-face communication is by far the biggest problem. We occasionally (like once a year) have our team members on site, but it is quite an expense because they fly in internationally. When most of the team is located in a central location, in seems like the other members get left behind a bit - they don't pick up as much company domain knowledge as would someone who worked in the same location as most other employees.
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Like Abby, our organization makes distributed development work. Interestingly, we are holding our face-to-face right now, so we have a week of all of our engineering team in one place. 

We rely heavily on our collaboration tools (specifically, the ones we make; we eat our own dogfood ;) ), as well as chat and screen/tmux to share and work together. The benefit of the distribution is that documentation and sharing of knowledge is essential. we can't just "grab the person in the next chair" and be sure they know what needs to be done.
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Distributed teams provide some interesting challenges.

You may run into different performance issues when connected from different locations.  Using good online collaboration tools can help a lot, but only if teams really learn to communicate with them, instead of just radiating meaningless status reports.

Being distributed can also be a benefit because the burden of internal connections may decrease, as external connections grow proportionally.
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Glad to see that teams are learning to use the collaboration tools to their advantage.  Still, I know it can be especially difficult for those employees who are "remote" from the majority of the team.  It means making more of a concerted effort by everyone to ensure anyone "remote" is treated equally and is part of discussions.  Definitely, every effort should be made to provide a periodic get-together when the whole team is together.
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It's true, and we manage to be productive with a distributed agile team. We work around the challenges. But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't be even MORE productive with a co-located team. As someone who has to deal with the issues of remote team members every day, I am a strong proponent for co-location.
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There are multiple reasons for this.

Offshoring/Outsourcing
Onshoring
Rural Sourcing
Sometimes finding qualified personal locally, is very hard, opening up to remote work force increases your chances of landing a quality candidate.
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Managing expectations is also a major challenge in this scenario. Distributed teams will take several sprints to gel together as a team, and during this forming/ norming period, conflicts would be high, and productivity is likely to be low. During this period, I would suggest the introduction of new responsibilities to the Scrum master role - contrary to Agile practices - to help drive the team from Norming stage to a Performing stage. This would necessitate the Scrum Master to have high cultural awareness & leadership skills, so as to help the team to bridge cultural gaps & smooth over differences.
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