How Agile Teams Overcome Obstacles Created by Distance

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Though agile team members often associate “distance” with having a distributed team, distance comes in multiple flavors. According to Jesse Fewell, who has advised dozens of companies in multiple industries, distance can be geographical, temporal (e.g., time zones), cultural, organizational (teams made up of contractors or individuals from different departments), or interpersonal, where people don't get along because they find each other annoying.

Fewell, an American, intimately understands the challenges of distance. Having worked on global teams since 2005, at one time supporting a British company while based in India, he knows how frustrating it can be when people speak different languages, use different technology, talk too much, or don't say enough.

Here's the thing, though. "What's good for colocated Scrum teams," he says, "is good for distributed Scrum teams."

In other words, for a team to work well together, its members have to figure out how they can work together effectively so that everyone is on the same page. It's what any smart Scrum team would do, whether members are located on the same floor or in three different countries.

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Distance and the Rise of Global Teams

While colocated teams are great — everyone's working on the same floor, in one time zone, and speaking the same language — research shows that virtual teams are often more productive. In fact, according to a report by global consulting firm Aon, employee productivity can increase between 10 to 43 percent when companies allow employees to work remotely or from home.

The Harvard Business Review cites another study, conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany, which surveyed 80 global software teams and discovered they outperformed colocated teams.

Geography does have its drawbacks, though.  MIT Professor Thomas J. Allen studied the impact of physical distance on communication, and he found that once teams were 50 meters apart, regular communication stalled. "People will not climb a flight of stairs to ask a question," Fewell said. "They'll use email or chat."

"If you want the benefits of a global organization, you need to make the investment in a global organization," Fewell says. "That investment absolutely requires people to use a common technology and infrastructure."

If that's the case, how do global teams work together successfully? By openly acknowledging their differences and adopting a true team-oriented mentality.

This is true not only for geographical distance but also for the other types of distance that Fewell observes.

When it comes to bridging distance, Fewell has two key pieces of advice. First, set up the right infrastructure to ensure good collaboration. Second, establish working agreements, or team norms. Both of these enable and enhance communication, a key goal of the Scrum framework.

Related: Put Your ScrumMaster Skills to Work

Infrastructure and Technology for Distributed Teams

"If you want the benefits of a global organization, you need to make the investment in a global organization," Fewell says. "That investment absolutely requires people to use a common technology and infrastructure."

For example, one of his clients, a transportation equipment manufacturer, now has telepresence technology installed everywhere, from its sleekest office building to its oldest factory. In many ways, it functions like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, in which anyone on any floor can touch a console on the wall and begin a conversation with someone else in the company.

"There's no login for this technology," Fewell says. "It extends outside the firewall, so that you can collaborate with customers and vendors. It's the same thing as inviting someone to your office to talk."

Clearly, not every company can afford such an investment. Organizations with modest budgets can consider standard-issue equipment, such as laptops, webcams, and/or headsets.

Another one of Fewell's clients, a telecommunications company, provided everyone with a standard-issue headset featuring noise-canceling headphones and microphone. The headphones reduced the ambient noise created by other conversations going on around the employee, while the microphone shielded the listener on the other end of the line from the same noise.

The result? The ability for both people to hear each other clearly, thereby enhancing understanding and communication.   

Related: What I Wish I'd Known as a New Scrum Master

Tip #1: Don't Forget Bandwidth

Bandwidth is a key component of the infrastructure. According to Fewell, the transportation company mentioned earlier subsidized the cost of broadband because so many employees had to take calls at home to accommodate different time zones. "If you're working from home, you can ask to have your broadband subsidized or upgraded," Fewell says," from a personal level of service to a business level of service. This is standard practice now in India."

Tip #2: Consider More Than One Tool

When it comes to distributed or global teams, multi-tech is the way to go. "You can't get by with just one technology," Fewell said. "Use video conferencing to talk, but you might want to do a screen share via Dropbox. And you might also have a chat window open." 

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Establish Working Agreements

Establishing working agreements is essential, Fewell says, because not everyone works in the same way. Working agreements, or team norms, can help teams avoid the messy business of miscommunication, false expectations, and cultural differences. And since the whole team must agree to the parameters of such an agreement, it acknowledges every team member's voice and perspective.

Whether it's for a colocated team or a team with offices around the globe, the goal of a working agreement is the same.

"What's good in Scrum is good in Scrum," Fewell says. "If you have a dedicated team room, have dedicated infrastructure for a global or distributed team. If you have some working agreements on how to get along in the office, then have some working agreements on how we can get along in a remote environment as well."

You can use working agreements to address all types of challenges facing distributed or global teams, such as:

Tip # 3: How to Handle Multiple Spoken Languages

Clearly, if you have team members in different countries, language can be an obstacle. "If you're working in a global setting," Fewell says, "one option is to have a working agreement that states, 'Let's agree to use English in meetings, but it's OK to use Spanish or Hindi or Japanese when discussing things offline.' "

He once advised a company based in Beijing, China, that aspired to be an English-only company. This goal was designed to attract talent, even though most people there spoke fluent Mandarin. The Scrum teams had a working agreement to try to speak English whenever possible, but it was OK to slip up because everyone was still learning English.

Working agreements can manage not only what language is spoken in meetings, but also what language to use in documentation, requirements, or chat.

Tip #4: Dealing with Time Zones

Dealing with time zones can be a huge pain for global or distributed Scrum teams. Team members' working hours may be off by three hours or an entire day.

Still, it's not impossible if you do the math. When setting up a working agreement around time zones, the Scrum team could ask the following questions:

  • If the team needs some collaboration time, what time of the day makes the most sense?
  • What is the overlap that you have in time zones?
  • If there's no overlap, then will someone have to dial in early?
  • If team members work at an office, will they have to dial in from home?

If time zones are still a problem, one approach is for the team to set up regional Scrums. "Split the team into two teams that have less temporal distance," Fewell says, "and start treating it like a multi-Scrum environment, even if you have two teams of five."

Another approach is to ask people to adjust their daily schedules. For example, a Certified Scrum Product Owner or Scrum Master may decide to stay up the extra hours or get up early to accommodate the schedule that works best for the rest of the team. Or the team may want to redefine its core hours, say from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., and then from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.  

Tip #5: Holidays

Different holidays should come as no surprise, not if you create a working agreement around them. "If you're frustrated by holidays," Fewell says, "that's on you. Because you haven't sat down and asked, 'When do you have off?' "

Whether it's Jewish holidays, Hindu holidays or Ramadan, "these are the types of things you just talk about. And work around it, because that's what we do in Scrum."

Tip #6: Learn the Personal Preferences of Your Teammates

Working agreements are used for more than bridging geographic distance. They help teams move beyond stereotypes and remind them that team culture trumps everything. Establishing working agreements will help team members thrive. Instead of confusing personal traits or habits with introversion or extroversion. Ask people how they prefer working on teams. For example, determine if they want a voice before anything is decided on, or if they want the details of a meeting spelled out in a document.

A working agreement can even encourage team sharing beyond the requirements of a project. Overcome interpersonal or temporal differences by adding a fourth question to the daily stand-up, such as "What are you doing this weekend?" 

Tip #7: Respect Cultural Differences

This can be a tricky one, because unfortunately, people make sweeping generalizations about each other.

"Americans may say, ‘Indians are all hierarchical, and they won't take initiative; they'll only follow orders.’ But then they haven't seen the Indian start-up community which is full of a lot of passionate people who won't stop talking," Fewell says with a laugh. "And the Indians might say, 'Well, all innovation is done in the West. Wouldn't it be great if we were all working in the U.S.?' And then they get to Washington, D.C. and find plenty of projects that suffer from hierarchies."

One way to get past cultural barriers is to allow team members to get to know each other as individuals with lives outside of work. Fewell suggests dedicating a chat channel where people upload personal photos or videos of their pets, hobbies, or national holidays.

Fewell has also seen teams use what he calls a video wall, where each team has a designated LCD and video camera on 24/7, either on the wall or maybe in the break room near the coffee maker. That way, when a team member in Chicago gets his coffee, he may "bump into" a team member doing the same in London and have a quick chat.

Just Talk About It

Most challenges faced by distanced teams can be managed by good communication. Common infrastructure and working agreements will facilitate that, but, as Fewell says, "I can't emphasize enough — stop and talk about why this is so hard."

Ultimately, he says it's on the Scrum Master's shoulders to help the team work through these problems so that people view each other through the lens of camaraderie rather than the lens of frustration.

"At the end of the day, it's about being intentional," Fewell says. "It's being deliberate about overcoming these objections."

Related: Take it to the Next Level — Scrum Mastery Beyond the Classroom

About the Author

Jesse Fewell is the author of the guidebook, "Can you hear me now? Working with global, distributed, virtual teams." A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, he is a dual-certified coach (Certified Enterprise Coach® and Leadership Circle Profile®) and an accredited instructor.


How To Create Team Agreements

Get your team on the same page with an effective working agreement. If you’re a Scrum Alliance member and want to know how to create a working agreement, please dive into the Learning Journey course: Working Agreements that Work. Not only will you up your game when it comes to creating team norms, you’ll also earn SEUs (required for renewal) upon completing the course!

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