Face-to-face communication around a shared modeling surface such as a whiteboard is considered to be a highly effective method of creating shared understanding. When team members are distributed, collaboration tools can help with reducing misunderstandings and miscommunications between team members but can’t fully eliminate those.
But what about the impacts of distribution on other roles such as agile leads or senior stakeholders?
To an outsider, an agile lead’s visible contribution in the early stages of team formation might be the facilitation of agile ceremonies but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. If the team is maturing, any team member should be able to run ceremonies. The greater value brought by an agile lead in such cases occurs outside of ceremonies, through actions such as suggesting opportunities for increased collaboration between team members, coaching individual team members and working with key stakeholders outside of the team.
With co-located teams, agile leads often identify coaching opportunities osmotically by just being present with the team. A casual comment might spur an agile lead to have a conversation which might avoid hours of unnecessary work. But with distributed teams, unless the agile lead is plugged into all the conversations taking place between team members and with external stakeholders, there is an increased likelihood of missing a coaching moment or being unable to help the team to address a blocker in a timely manner.
Persistent group chat tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams can help the agile lead to be somewhat aware of what’s going on, but it is rare that all members of a team would conduct all of their interactions through these platforms. Online work management tools such as JIRA or Rally can capture significant updates for the team’s work items, but it is rare that an agile lead will review all changes to those work items even if team members have been diligent about regularly updating them.
In such cases, eliminating or reducing the level of multitasking will be critical as the impacts of context switching are compounded with distributed team members.
With senior stakeholders, even if good information radiators have been constructed and published, lacking in-person access to the team might increase the number of ad hoc requests for updates as there is less opportunity for them to observe how the work is being done. It might also put a greater emphasis on regular showcases or frequent product reviews as the primary method of soliciting product feedback rather than the preferred ability to drop by and see the latest build as the need arises. This might increase the time it takes these stakeholders to begin to trust the team’s capabilities. Similarly, because team members won’t have regular in-person contact with these senior stakeholders, they may also take more time to start to trust them. Bringing the team together with key senior stakeholders on a periodic basis is one way to address these concerns, but this can be an expensive proposition.
With ever increasing needs to tap into dispersed skill sets and to support flexible working arrangements for team members, distributed teaming is here to stay. Acknowledging that more effort will need to be spent overcoming distance challenges is an important step to managing expectations with this way of working.