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How ALM tools help embrace distributed Agile teams

Distributed Agile teams offer many advantages, and when using ALM tools, such teams provide the flexibility that both employees and employers need to communicate more efficiently.

Although face-to-face communication is promoted in Agile literature, to be competitive in today's world, teams need to be effective at communicating and collaborating regardless of physical location. Luckily, with the help of modern-day technologies and application lifestyle management (ALM) tools, organizations are finding that setting up their infrastructure so that employees can work anytime from anywhere provides the flexibility that both employees and employers seek. Let's look at the advantages of distributed Agile teams and how tools and technologies are providing features that allow team members to work effectively from anywhere.

Employees greatly appreciate the option of being able to work from anywhere. Working from home saves commute time and allows employees to take care of contractors or appointments close to home without cutting so heavily into their PTO time. When they have a cold, working from home allows employees to avoid taking PTO or bringing their germs into the office. Bad weather days, caring for a sick child or traveling -- all are occasions many employees would prefer to work, rather than having to take PTO.

The flexibility to work from anywhere also helps employees have a better work-life balance -- a huge benefit for them. If they are measured on the work they produce, rather than the time they are in the office, most employees will feel empowered to work longer hours to produce the high quality results they know their employers expect. This reinforces a feeling of mutual trust and respect team members will also appreciate. By setting up employees' expectations using communication tools, managers will be aware of each employee's availability and, as a result, can plan for both focus time and team time.

Providing flexibility for employers

Employers also benefit from allowing employees to work from anywhere. Without the constraints of having to hire locally, employers aren't limited to whom they may consider. They can instead hire based on skill, rather than proximity. And if they allow for fully remote employees, they will save considerably on office expenses.

For large, global companies, having employees in the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific countries allows for a "follow-the-sun" business model providing 24-hour coverage. This can be particularly useful for organizations providing production software support. Rather than waking someone in the middle of the night, incidents can be managed by the team currently within business hours.

The opportunity to work from anywhere also helps establish trusting relationships and company loyalty. Employees don't feel micro-managed and, as a result, will be more productive.

Tools and ALM provide collaborative features

Whether organizations offer employees an occasional work-from-home day or hire fully distributed Agile teams, they would benefit from setting up an infrastructure and tooling that will help a team member's physical location become inconsequential.

Even collocated teams will benefit from collaborative features and the ability to house artifacts in an ALM tool. These tools allow for a single source of truth for data. This is important for many reasons: if clarification is needed on requirements; traceability when there are defects; and metrics allowing the team to continuously improve.

We can't do without process and tools

Although Agile stresses the importance of "individuals and interactions over process and tools" in its Manifesto, we can't do without process and tools. The key is to identify a particular process and tools both fast and user-friendly enough that development teams will want to use them -- especially if by doing so they will have the flexibility to work from anywhere.

Guides are available providing a variety of tips showing how ALM tools take advantage of collaborative and social features, thereby allowing teams to enjoy many of the benefits of strong teamwork without the restraints of having to always be in the same location physically.

Although there are advantages to face-to-face communication and collocated teams, these same advantages also exist with distributed Agile teams. Both employers and employees welcome flexibility and with modern-day ALM tools, software teams can take advantage of features that allow them to work from anywhere and still enjoy many of the social benefits they would get from an office environment.

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How distributed Agile teams communicate

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Does your company allow employees to work from anywhere?
Yes, my company does allow employees to work from anywhere, within reason. In the past of years it was decided that executives should work within commuting distance to one of the main office locations, however. When you've got your company's executives having to constantly fly in order to actually visit an office location, travel costs really skyrocket quickly.

Many employees work from home now and then, some who have a longer commute work from home a few days a week, but there are very few who are 100% remote. 

I appreciate the flexibility of being able to work from home, but communication tools really aren't a replacement for face-to-face communication. 
Within reason, we prefer it. Some jobs here are hands-on, but anything that doesn't demand a warm body can (and should) be done off-site. It's not the head count that matters here, it's the quality of the work and as long as the job gets done, as long as morale remains high, the work can come from anywhere.

Reality is, because there's no one here for long meetings and conferences (phone or online) tend to be shorter than physical meetings, we're actually getting more done every day, saving time and money. Since fewer on-site bodies require less space, it's been win/win for us. 
We are pretty flexible about where people work, but we currently only allow employees to work from a state in which we have business dealings.
We mostly use Rally for ALM needs. That really hasn't got much to do with being a distributed team; we needed a tool like that regardless.  Being distributed does make many aspects of communication more difficult, however. 

Some changes we had to make included finding an online tools for our team restrospective meetings (we used to put sticky notes on a whiteboard when we were all in one office). 

We also had to find a better way to communicate when drawing out diagrams on a whiteboard during a meeting; it's difficult for remote employees to see what's going on just using a laptop camera.
It makes me wonder: If your tools are all as-a-service (rally, leankit, or pivotal for requirements, github for version control, VM's for test servers that are provisioned in the cloud) then what do you need to go into an office for at all?

I suppose there are some physical artifacts that could hold you back. You might have files stored on a drive that you need to be on-site to see, or a physical scrum board, or you might not have IM or chat. It just seems in 2015 these are mostly solvable problems. Get free IM and ask someone to move a card when you are working from home. 

Having ALM designed from the ground up to support these would help, of course - and the ability to hire all-remote all the time is a strategic enabler. I'd like to hear more about that!
"I think we agree that agile teams around the globe collaborate and the platform/tools are needed for that purpose (the single source of truth, transparency, etc.) However, in terms of agile teams, we want collaboration at the team level to be face to face right?

In the case of Scrum or XP, how would all this apply (or not apply)?

To your point about the literature, here is a quote by Michael James: "Every day at the same time and place, the Scrum Development Team members spend a total of 15 minutes reporting to each other. Each team member summarizes what he did the previous day, what he will do today, and what impediments he faces. Standing up at the Daily Scrum will help keep it short. Topics that require additional attention may be discussed by whomever is interested after every team member has reported." - the Scrum Reference Card.
Hi Abuell,

Did you hear that CA is buying Rally? https://www.computerweekly.com/news/4500247091/CA-Technologies-to-buy-agile-software-development-firm-Rally-for-480m . Do you see that acquisition having any effect on your ALM tools decisions?
Hi Manny,

Stand ups can be tricky for distributed / remote teams. But I think teleconference technology is getting to a point (or may already be there) where the stand-up meeting could be done through a service like Skype or Google Hangouts. I think it's reasonable to ask remote workers to have a webcam and a workspace where they can videocall into meetings.
This also offers the potential advantage of being able to record the standup meetings if you want to for future reference.
We currently handle distributed standups by using Skype or Google Hangouts displayed on large TVs in the rooms at both locations. In addition to the benefits that James mentioned, it also allows the team members to at least see each other on the screen to better pickup on the non-verbal communication.