Tricia Whenham: Tips to stay collaborative while working from home

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Tricia Whenham: Tips to stay collaborative while working from home

By Tricia Whenham, senior writer at Nureva, Canada


Feeling more than a little lost after being unexpectedly thrust into the world of remote work?

You’re not alone. Agile teams all over the world are feeling the strain as COVID-19 has made looking at each other through a webcam our new reality.

According to the last State of Agile Report, 78% of organizations engage in some remote work. But it’s never been like this. Need some ideas to help your agile team stay connected and productive when you’re working from home? Here are 17 things you can do right away.

Invest in your home office

When you’re forced to work from home, it’s tempting to just plunk your laptop somewhere convenient and get back to work. But take the time to create the space you deserve – the investment will pay off. Ask yourself what you really need to be productive. (Standing desk? Extra monitors? Easy access to snacks?) Then do your best to make it happen it. You may need to get creative if your partner and kids are also working from home, but it’s worth the effort. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post all about creating your ideal home workspace.

Reopen your team agreement

Do you have a team agreement? It almost certainly didn’t account for this. Take the time to talk openly about what’s going to work for your team in this new reality. Check if people have changed their standard start and end times. Find out who’s doing double duty – agile developer/homeschool teacher? It’s important to not make assumptions. We all know how quickly things can change. Get more help creating your team agreement.

Flex your time if you need to

Working from home (especially during a pandemic) isn’t like being in the office. You may have young children pulling your attention away from your team. Or you may be missing your mornings at the gym or your walk to grab a coffee. The good thing is working from home offers much more flexibility – you just have to make it happen. Talk to your team about what schedule is best for you during these times. Consider your core hours – when will people be available to collaborate and when will they be working on their own timeline.

Don’t skip daily stand-up

When the world has been turned upside down, it can be easy to let go of some routines. But stand-up shouldn’t be one of them. As you struggle to stay connected and productive, it’s more important than ever to keep checking in with each other. If you’re struggling to translate what you do to a virtual environment, here are a few tips.

Create your information radiator

Right now, there must be thousands of abandoned sticky-note walls in empty offices. If you’re a team who still relies on paper, you need to find yourself a new information radiator, quick. Luckily, Span™ Workspace and other visual collaboration solutions give you simple ways to replicate a scrum board, sprint plan or anything else your team needs to visualize. No matter what tool you choose, make sure it lets your team work together easily in real time, before you shift into detail-mode with your project management software.

Turn your cameras on

This is both one of the most common pieces of advice and one that’s the most frequently ignored. But it really is this valuable. Without your webcams on during meetings and calls, you miss so many cues and signals that build connection and understanding. As bandwidth gets increasingly strained, you may not be able to use your webcam for the entirety of every call or meeting. But always starting with it turned on is a good team practice.

Fill in the gaps in your tools

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” – that’s still the case, even when remote. But when everyone is dispersed, you’re going to need tools to enable the interactions. Ask your team early what they’re missing to be able to do their job well at a distance, and then look for solutions. Focus on tools that are simple, easy to adopt and encourage collaboration – not complex feature sets.

Milk your back channels

All those quick conversations and overheard discussions that make up office life? They’re incredibly important to keeping your team informed and aligned. Meeting and emails will never replace them, but chat and messaging tools just might. If you haven’t already, sign up for Slack, Teams or some other messaging platform. If you already have a company-wide messaging tool, use it more often. Make conversations as open as possible, and leave room for fun (anyone have some WFH pet pics?).

Reinvent (some) meetings

Now that you’re out of the office, you’ll discover quickly what works and what doesn’t in an online meeting. Following practices like turning on cameras and using visual tools can be a pretty solid substitute for in-person interactions. But if a certain meeting feels broken now, don’t be afraid to change it up. On the plus side, taking a fresh look at your meetings may push you to make improvements that you’ll benefit from even when you’re back in the office.

Give people the benefit of the doubt

When teams are distributed, there’s always the chance of miscommunications and misunderstandings. It takes a little while to get used to fewer social cues and different norms. And that’s in normal circumstances (and this is anything but). Even when tensions run high, assume that people are doing their best under extraordinary circumstances. And try to get to the root of problems rather than letting small issues fester.

Rely on your retrospective

Have your retrospectives been feeling a bit stale? They’re about to be more important than ever. You may want to up the frequency for a little while, so your team can fix problems sooner rather than later. Make sure to use digital tools that eliminate groupthink and help people share freely. And keep things fresh – Fun Retrospectives is full of ideas, most of which can be adapted for distributed teams.

Do happiness checks

Retrospectives are needed to share feedback and start solving problems, but it’s also important to just check in on how people are feeling. Molood Ceccarelli, founder of the Remote Forever Summit, talks about happiness checks, where people can quickly and anonymously weigh in on their frame of mind using a simple scale. The information can be added to a digital canvas using tools like QuickShare or graphed in a simple pie chart to show team mood.

Build in social time

COVID 19 has a lot of people thinking outside the box when it comes to social connection – from balcony serenades to rooftop fitness classes. So get creative when it comes to having fun with your colleagues. Try scheduling a virtual happy hour – all you need is a meeting invite. “Grab coffee” with a coworker and ban talk about work for 10 minutes. Luckily, with conferencing tools like Zoom and Teams, there’s never been a better time to stay connected.

Go outside and share the pics

Getting outside – whether into nature or just your backyard – can be what you need to clear your head and get a fresh perspective. Whether your break means walking around the block or playing with your kids outside, it’s more important than ever to step away from your devices. And when you come back, share a pic with your team so everyone can have a little more nature in their socially distanced reality. Sue Thomas also has some more tips for bringing nature into your digital life.

Run experiments

When you get beyond the sprints and the WIPs and the user stories, agile at its core is about being responsive, adaptive and collaborative. What better time to put all those qualities into action? Give your team space to try new things to see if they work (or if they don’t). Find your 15% solution and build from there. It’s what agile was made for.

Get help

Normally, no one would dive headlong into a remote work experiment like this one. Pretty much all coaches and experts agree that onboarding and training is essential. If you can, find people who’ve been there before to coach you through this transition. If you can’t, look to the many webinars and resources now available.

Consider this an investment in your future

Someday (hopefully soon!) people who work in an office will go back. We’ll see our teammates without the webcam filter and relish the luxury of a shared lunch or an offline meeting. But the skills and strategies we’ll learn from this experience aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, though no one wants to have remote work thrust upon them like this, the ability to pivot to be an effective distributed agile team is valuable. You’ll have better tools for sick days and snow days. You’ll be able to hire team members from anywhere. And you might just decide that remote work is something you’d like to keep doing – now that you know you can.

Keep your distributed agile team connected

See how Nureva Span Workspace can help your newly distributed Scrum team stay on the same page with a free 30-day trial. No credit cards. No commitments. Try free for 30 days

Tricia Whenham is a senior copy writer at Nureva in Calgary, Canada. In her time as a writer and editor in the tech sector, Tricia has been spreading the word about how technology can help us work more collaboratively together. Her blog posts and articles offer strategies and tools to help distributed teams stay aligned. As teams increasingly turn to remote work (out of choice or necessity), she aims to demystify the complexity and challenges that come with new ways of working.