Remote Working in an Agile Team
This paper uses a case study of a UK-based software provider to explore whether remote working is compatible with agile ways of working. It focuses on the issues faced by hybrid teams, where most people are co-located in the same office, while 2-3 others work from home or another office.
Although the paper was written pre-Covid, its findings are still highly relevant today.
Co-location is the ‘gold standard’ of agile development, but distribution in one form or another is a necessary reality of today’s development activity for many organisations. Distribution comes in three main flavours: distributed teams, dispersed individuals and hybrid teams. A distributed team consists of sub-teams in different locations, i.e. everyone in the sub-team is co-located with others in the sub-team, but the overall team is split between locations; this is commonly used in offshoring and global software development contexts. A dispersed team describes the situation when each individual in the team is located in a different place so each individual is on their own. A hybrid team is a combination of co-location and dispersed working, where there is a co-located team and one or two individuals who are located elsewhere and are on their own; these workers are referred to as remote workers. This white paper focuses on the experience of one organisation that utilises hybrid teams for its software development. It explores the challenges faced by this organisation in using remote working, investigates one team in detail and summarises relevant findings from existing literature that help to address these challenges.
The organisation in this white paper is Workplace Systems Ltd – a Milton Keynes-based company that specialises in workforce management software and employs primarily scrum-based agile practices. They are keen to support remote working but need to ensure that:
- remote working is compatible with their agile working; and
- remote workers’ participation is effective throughout the sprints
Agile Research Network (ARN) explored the remote working situation with members of the Workplace Systems (WPS) software development team to answer these questions. Overall, the remote working arrangements work well and experience and literature show that remote working is compatible with agile software development, but there are also challenges concerned with making remote workers’ participation effective. At WPS, these challenges fall into six overlapping themes: tooling and infrastructure, knowledge sharing and working together, (remote) pair programming, large group meetings, awareness (presence, activity, important issues), and social interaction and familiarity.
Findings indicate that making remote workers’ participation effective requires effort by all team members to overcome challenges and to develop and maintain a shared understanding of the project between all members of the team. The following suggestions summarise those detailed in the white paper:
- balance the needs of the co-located team and remote worker to avoid detrimental effects on either, and involve the remote worker effectively in discussions
- have a robust communication and tooling infrastructure for online interactions
- use multiple communication modes to allow for individual differences across staff members
- consider pairing to facilitate knowledge sharing more effectively, build more trust, and integrate remote workers better into the teams
- use suitable tools to support pairing between co-located and remote team members
- use published pairing guidelines to support novice pairs
- use social discipline and high-quality communication technology to engage remote workers in large group meetings, and set up a dedicated meeting room so that appropriate equipment may be consistently available
- provide collaborative platforms that support meaningful engagement of remote workers and co-located workers in meaningful tasks
- have both formal and informal channels of communication and distinguish important information from social chatter for all team members
- be aware of possible breakdowns in communication and information exchange, particularly with the remote worker