Working with and for others in a remote setting
14 April 2020
Posted by: Agile Research Network
Working from home can be challenging for many reasons. People who do so on a regular basis emphasise the importance of routine, taking regular breaks and having a designated home working space. But beyond the practicalities of day-to-day arrangements, our research has highlighted a different set of issues that need to be taken into account when it comes to working with and for others in a remote setting.
Collaboration is a key principle of agile working and so many of us will be well aware of the importance of keeping in touch with suitable online tools, or sharing knowledge with colleagues or setting shared goals, but what does that mean in a situation where everyone is remote?
We learned several lessons while researching agile teams that included at least some remote workers, but today I want to highlight four areas that I encourage you to reflect upon. Adequately addressing each of them for your own situation can make a big difference to your team’s health. And it’s important to bear in mind that individuals differ in terms of how well they react to any of these issues, so a solution that sorts it out for one team-mate may not work for another.
The four issues are:
- Being explicit, to ensure that the right knowledge and information is shared widely
- “Meaningful” engagement, to position each individual’s work within the “big picture” so that they can be clear about where they contribute value
- Awareness of activity, to avoid repeated or redundant work
- Proactive leader, to keep everyone informed and engaged
“Everything that needs to be shared needs to be shared explicitly”
In a remote situation everything that needs to be shared needs to be shared explicitly. This includes technical knowledge and changes from clients or within the business, but it also includes feedback, reassurance, re-directing and anything else that you have found makes your team pull together.
Of course you’d expect and want everyone on the team to be engaged in meaningful activity. But what does that mean, and to whom is it “meaningful”? We are all motivated by different things but feeling valued and getting things done are known to be key motivators in technological settings, specifically software development. In a remote working situation where signals of reassurance have to be explicit it’s worth remembering that some people may not feel comfortable with the distance and may benefit from explicit feedback and support.
Awareness of activity
“Every individual needs to be clear about where they contribute value – they need meaningful engagement”
This also is a key principle of agile working – Kanban boards and status boards abound in most agile settings, providing that all-important sense of achievement and moving forwards. Hopefully these mechanisms also allow colleagues to track who is working on which element of the project and who has dealt with each activity. However, it is surprising how much information is exchanged informally when teams are co-located. Mechanisms that seem to be working well in such settings may not be sufficient once team members are remote so consider reviewing awareness mechanisms and adding new ones if needed.
One of the case studies we worked on was led by an incredibly energetic project lead. He was constantly online, talking with team mates individually or in groups, updating the team’s knowledge repository, recording fact gathering interviews with others, and checking in with his team on a regular basis. While an over-zealous project leader can be counter-productive, an under-active one can also lead to problems hinted at above, e.g. lack of awareness, demoralised team members or repeated work. It’s important that leaders are sensitive to the need to find the right balance in terms of communication and support.
How best to deal with these issues in your own situation, whatever your formal role, requires some reflection and consideration. Maybe everything is fine and no further action is required, but does everyone feel the same, and are your mechanisms for collaboration still working as you’d expect?
Read more about Remote Working here.
This blog was written by the Agile Research Network. The ARN is a collaboration between researchers at two UK universities, The Open University (OU) and The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), at the forefront of investigating Agile methodologies.
Deshpande, A., Sharp, H., Barroca, L., Gregory A., Taylor, K. (2018) Remote working in Agile Software Development: distributed, dispersed and hybrid teams, (pocketbook), ABC Ltd. (available from https://agileresearchnetwork.org/publications/)
Deshpande, A., Sharp, H., Barroca, L. and Gregory, A.J. (2016) ‘Remote Working and Collaboration in Agile Teams’, in Proceedings of International Conference on Information Systems, Dublin, 11-14 December 2016, pp 4543-4559
Sharp, H., Giuffrida, R. and Melnik, G. (2012) ‘Information flow in a dispersed agile team: a distributed cognition perspective’, in Proceedings of XP 2012, Malmo, Sweden, May