Woman working in a home office, using an iMac

If you’ve suddenly found yourself working remotely due to COVID-19 precautions, how do you handle all the normal day-to-day things like meetings, tracking tasks, and just accomplishing basic communication? Team norms don’t need to be complicated just because everyone’s remote. Being a fully distributed company ourselves, we have learned a lot over the years that helps us keep our teams running smoothly.

First, you need the right tools — and perhaps a bit of training. Slack and Zoom, our preferred chat and videoconferencing providers, can make working remotely a breeze, but you need to ensure that everyone knows how to use them. Spend a little bit of time upfront getting everyone set up with accounts on the systems you’ll use and familiarizing them with the software. You might even schedule a short all-hands webinar to educate your team on shared norms for remote work and walk everyone through how to use the tools. People will lose attention and engagement in a meeting if they have to watch someone spend 3 minutes trying to figure out how to share their screen. Help everyone start with the same understanding.

Once everyone is up to speed, tools like these can really help make work visible without a lot of changes to your workflow. If you were using Post-it notes on a whiteboard at your office to represent stories you were working on each sprint, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to change that. Your team might decide to keep that practice and have someone circulate photos of the board or set up a webcam. Alternately, you might choose to use one of the many collaboration tools available, such as Jira, Trello, or Basecamp. Of course, if you’re in a bigger organization with specific IT or security needs, bulk licensing agreements, etc., you may not have much of a choice as to what tools you use, but you can make the best of what you have.

Most teams at Alley have norms around tool usage, and Alley has some organizational norms too. For example, we prefer for everyone to have video on during calls and to join from a professionally appropriate environment. If you’re temporarily working out of an apartment bedroom, something as simple as setting up a screen behind you on video can help maintain appearances. We find keeping video on to be especially important when companies are entirely remote and distributed, as ours is and yours may become. Seeing each other face-to-face helps build trust and connection among team members. We know of other organizations, however, that prefer everyone to turn their video off during a screen share so folks’ reactions or environments aren’t distracting to the presenter, or so they don’t appear on recordings. Either approach can make sense, depending on the context of your work. If you work remotely for long enough, you’ll find what works for you and your team. 

It’s also important to establish and routinely review a shared set of team norms. One of our norms, for example, is to err on the side of overcommunicating, to ensure that everyone has a shared understanding of how projects will function. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. We suggest establishing a team norm early on that it’s safe and important to ask questions if anything is unclear. 

Be on the lookout for ambiguity in both your communication and communication from others. This is a good practice whether you are working remotely or colocated, but it can help to explicitly state this in your team norms. For instance, if someone says, “I’ll have this done soon,” when is “soon”? Today? Tomorrow? There’s no need to micromanage folks on your team from afar, but it can be good for everyone to commit to accountability and specifics when possible, to ensure the quality of the work. This goes for anything that might need to be done on a deadline: Find out when it needs to be done, and ensure both the person requesting work to be done and the person doing that work have a shared understanding of the commitment. You might ask for something “by end of day” with the intent of promoting a relaxed, flexible work environment, but the ambiguity can lead to anxiety. When you can, remove all doubt and commit to specifics. 

When transitioning from being colocated to functioning as a distributed team, change only the norms that need to be changed. There is no need to throw out your history as a team to accommodate this new way of working. Rather than everyone sitting in a room together to plan work, you’ll all simply join a video call. That’s it. Remote work can be incredibly collaborative, especially with fewer restrictions on scheduling due to long commutes or needing to literally get everyone in a room together. You’ll find that you don’t need to stand around a physical water cooler or chat while passing in the hallway to manufacture serendipity and foster creativity. It just takes deliberate effort to come together and collaborate.

To make the most of our work together, build camaraderie, and get things done, we routinely schedule swarm times throughout the week to talk on video calls or chat in Slack. These provide regular opportunities to share work in progress, bounce around ideas, and help unblock anyone who’s stuck on a problem. This doesn’t require a large process change, just someone to schedule a Zoom call. Zoom can also be great for pair programming, which we frequently employ to solve tricky problems together.

You’ll find that being a team is by no means dependent on being together in the same room. You can use this transition to enhance your company culture. Everyday occurrences such as dogs barking at mail trucks, sick kids staying home from school, contractors working at someone’s home, etc. are realities of life — and touchpoints we can all chuckle about and bond over as we learn more about each other’s families, neighborhoods, and habits.

Oddly enough, being apart can actually bring us closer together. Professionalism doesn’t have to mean being unforgiving of folks’ circumstances, and a little grace and humor goes a long way. We’ve found it to be incredibly important — and empowering — to assume positive intent among team members and client stakeholders. Assume people are working when they say they are, and ideally establish norms for communication that allow for asynchronous responses between tasks. As so many teams are making the transition to remote work right now, encourage the adoption of flexible work habits. Kindness, forgiveness, and expressing care for one another can make all the difference in how your team weathers these changes. 

Be well, and happy remoting!

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This is the third of a five-part series, Locked out of the Scrum Room, on taking an agile practice remote:

Because we are a remote company and an agile organization that generally follows Scrum Inc’s Scrum at Scale program, we think we could be useful to other agile organizations that are finding themselves temporarily working from home during this challenging time. We’re happy to answer questions and provide guidance and assistance as we are able.

We are also devoting pro bono time to assisting nonprofit organizations in this transition, whether they use Scrum or not.

Let us know if we can help, or check out our e-book on remote work.

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