Do you think working from home will never be as good as working together at the office? You probably draw such a conclusion based on your experiences during the pandemic. But hey, this is a new dimension to teamwork. So what if we’re simply not good enough at it yet? What if we underestimated what it takes to bring our teamwork online?
Instead of concluding that working at the office is better than working from home, I want to discover what can be improved to our current virtual collaboration approach.
Switching to working remotely
In pre-pandemic times many people (mostly managers) had doubts about their teams “working from home”. While employers feared a productivity loss, employees also had doubts like difficulties separating their work and private life. Also, many resisted to the idea of working from home simply because it was unknown territory.
The Scrum Guide does not mention colocation specifically. However, many studies show that colocated (Scrum) teams perform better than distributed teams. That’s because colocation promotes short feedback loops through rich communication. “Colocation” traditionally means working together in the same physical space where people can see and/or hear each other directly. The overall belief is that working remotely is not colocation and therefore will harm team performance.
However, the pandemic forced everybody to put their doubts aside. We all simply had to start doing it. After experimenting and learning for about a year now we can make up the score: In general, remote (or distributed) teams have proven to be quite effective.
When switching to working from home, a temporary dip in productivity was expected. However, it seemingly did not take much effort to convert Scrum teams to an online working environment. I guess that’s because the transparency of the Scrum events, the disciplined cadence and clear accountabilities transfer well to online. I believe that the fewer dysfunctions a (Scrum) team has at the office, the easier it is for them to switch to online. Teams that collaborate well easily find ways to keep on collaborating when going remote. For them, switching to online is just another problem to tackle. Note that the Scrum Master plays an important role in facilitating a the transition and in setting the tone for the “new normal”.
I have experienced that knowing each other only virtually does not have much impact on the quality of collaboration. For example, online job interviews are a bit awkward but successful. And the problems new teams encounter online are not different from physical immaturity team problems.
The feedback on working from home I hear most, is that people miss communicating in real life. Remote communication is shallow because we miss cues of non verbal communication. There is truth in that statement, but we seem to forget all the great phone conversations we had in our lives. Over the years, we have adapted quite well to the “voice-only” format of remote communication. (Although breaking up with your friend is best done face to face…). The addition of visual support to our remote communication is just another step in the evolution of remote communication.
Studies show that on the short term, team productivity remains equal or has increased (Standford study 2021). As a consequence, organizations consider cutting housing cost by reducing or completely abandoning offices. There is also a trend to focus on repurposing office space towards more social than working activities.
But there are not only short-term wins. A major side-effect of working remotely is that it reduces creativity. Scrum teams do complex work and complex work requires creativity. Doing the work remotely reduces the work to finishing a list of tasks. What we miss are casual opportunities for an occasional joke or the accidental discovery of something great. I think the biggest challenge for online teams is to create an environment that fosters creativity.
On the long term, the consequences of working from home are still unknown. Possibly there will be psychological side-effects like alienation or even depression. It might also help people to reconsider the work they do and choose to change their destiny towards a more fulfilling life.
Things we tried to create Virtual Colocation
I joined a Scrum team that was created during the pandemic. I was very curious to experience how things would work out being fully remote. Our relationship was and is a 100% virtual: we never met in real life. Some of us are completely new to Scrum, others are very experienced. We got the team started with regular team startup activities including crying together over our favorite tunes and sharing many personal stories. Until today, I still don’t know how tall my teammates are. I only know them from a stamp-sized video-image showing their torso. Nonetheless, our distributed Scrum-collaboration works great.
We experiment to improve our online collaboration format. We are looking for ways to get as close as possible to being colocated at the office: We want to sit together in the same space to have fun and be creative. That’s why we started to work in a single virtual room as much as possible for the whole day. We continuously use one single session as our shared “office space”. It is a “virtual home” where we hang out, even if we don’t have anything specific to do.
We tried Skype and Teams. In our environment Microsoft Teams performs better technically. The setup people create at home is fully personal. Some work with multiple monitors, others don’t. Most of us wear headsets for better audio quality.
In our virtual home, everybody has cameras and sound switched on all the time. This gives us a lot of informal time together and we get a great understanding of each other’s lives when partners, kids, the cleaning guy or parcel delivery walk into our virtual room. It is vital for establishing rapport with each other to not try to exclude personal life but to embrace it and incorporate it in our virtual office space. If a complication like having the kids at home is known to the whole team, the whole team can even contribute to helping to deal with it. It should be not much different from one of your teammates coming to the office with his or her kids because the babysitter did not show up.
It’s important to understand that being in the same session does not mean we constantly need to do something active together like talking. While being in our virtual room, we work together or work for ourselves. Just like at the office, we might want to wear headphones to listen to music while we’re busy. Or maybe someone mutes for a minute or two to take a phone call. The notion that someone is there with you makes us feel connected and is similar to sharing a physical space.
By default, the online meeting tools we’ve tried echo a video of yourself on your screen. I think it is unnatural to get constant visual feedback of yourself. It’s like putting a mirror on your desk to verify how we come across. Seeing a video of yourself continuously is fatiguing and draws the focus away from your teammates. If possible, I turn it off, move the screen so that my picture is no longer visible, or cover your image with a sticky note. You will be less exhausted by the end of the day.
Working online does not encourage us to move a lot. To prevent long stretches of immobility, we take a break and leave our desks almost every hour.
We prefer synchronous over asynchronous communication. Instead of emailing, we call people directly or invite them to join or virtual home. People we interact with frequently know the link to our virtual home, so when they need to talk to us, they can “walk into our office” or they show up on a meeting invitation. If needed, people switch to a separate session to not disturb the others.
We collaborate using shared whiteboards, Power-Points, Word docs etc (our team does not write code). The collaboration sessions work great when we run them as mob-sessions, with a driver sharing the screen and operating the tool (Power-Point for example) while the navigator(s) provide the content.
By taking the positive stance that working as a distributed team is new to us that needs to mature, we continuously experiment to improve our online collaboration and move towards the perfection of virtual colocation. This does not mean there is no value in getting together in a physical location. The best results will be attained when we combine the two forms into a hybrid mode of operation.
Tips for setting up post-pandemic Scrum in “Hybrid Mode”
It looks like once the pandemic is over, most of us will partially return to the office. Partially, because working from home will be combined with working at the office. For this new hybrid mode, we need to decide which activities will take place remote and which ones at the office.
It seems obvious to have the Scrum events at the office. However, we decided that we will try the opposite: All Scrum events will be done remotely. We will come to the office to do the Sprint-work, to refine the Product Backlog, to have workshops and to socialize.
Why does it make sense to have the Scrum events remote?
- The Scrum Events are well suited for remote because their format is highly structured. It’s clear who needs to attend and what are the inputs, outputs and duration of each event.
- Their recurring schedule is unlikely to change often, which creates transparency regarding our availability for our families.
- Teams will fill the physical time together with activities that are less suitable for online. We should come to the office to socialize and to conduct less structured creative activities such as Product Backlog refining, designing, tackling tough problems, etc.
- Online sessions scale very well. In our company, some teams have synchronized Sprints and have events with large numbers of participants (like PI planning or combined Sprint Reviews). The effort for setting up a large online event equals setting up a small one.
- Keeping the Scrum events remote and the idea of reducing the available office space combine very well. If teams share the same Sprint cadence and if they would have their key events at the office, we would need lots of physical space for just a short moment in time.
- Choosing when to work at the office is easier for the teams. In a two-week Sprint, one or maybe two days are fully dedicated to Scrum events (Sprint Planning, Review and Retrospective). This leaves enough time (8 working days in a two-week Sprint) to spread physical team collaborations at the office without creating congestion.
Working remote brings challenges but many new opportunities as well. We are yet to discover how to approach our online collaboration through continuous experimentation. The new way of working is likely to be a “hybrid mode”, in which working-from-home is mixed with working-at-the-office. This will allow organizations to reduce physical office space because teams primarily work from home. Scrum teams need to explore virtual colocation to make working from home sustainable. Scrum events are structured events and are best held online. We return to the office for social and creative activities and to solidify our purpose and feeling of belonging.
If you have additional ideas on virtual colocation or Scrum in hybrid mode, feel free to share them.