Face-to-face with the agile manifesto... Working with remote team members
Mar 17, 2020
Gino Marckx

As health specialists and governments encourage employees to work from home en masse, many employers start fearing the impact on their teams’ productivity. After all, the agile manifesto states as one of its principles:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Are we doomed to return to less agile ways of working? Will we see productivity plummet? Will we see new value being released only ever so often?

Communication

Online teams are less effective than collocated teams

Let’s first start with this breaking down this statement.

The main difference between online (or remote) and collocated teams is the way in which they communicate. Collocated teams benefit from what Alistair Cockburn calls osmotic communication. You could explain it as transfer of information and knowledge by virtue of being in physical proximity with your team, where all work is done, where all frustrations are voiced and all intentional and unintentional signals are there for everyone to see. Online teams communicate much differently and rely often only on scheduled calls, emails, chat messages, documentation and other communication mechanisms.

In my experience collocatedness and thus communication can have a significant impact on a team’s productivity. Already in 1971 Albert Mehrabian published his research about the 7-38-55 rule of personal communication in Silent Messages:

  • 7% of the message is carried by the content or the words;
  • 38% of the message is carried by tonality or the voice;
  • and 55% of the message is carried by the visual.

In a non-collocated setting, we often don’t get insight into tonality, let alone into eye rolls or people shifting in their seat. This provides us with a less complete picture of what is going on. Albert Mehrabian also says that if there is a conflict between content, tonality and visual, the latter ones will always win over the content. In other words, in a collocated setting the real message will more clearly shine through.

Another aspect of communication - and of agile software development - is the feedback loop. Many online communication channels will have a longer feedback loop than face-to-face communication, making conversations harder to manage and less efficient in general.

Richer communication channels therefor will use as much of the visual and auditive attributes of communication as possible while reducing the feedback loop. As an example, a video chat is richer than an instant messaging session, which is richer than email conversation.

Mitigating communication challenges

At this point you might believe that I feel that non-collocated teams cannot be as effective as collocated teams. But that is not what I believe. I have long worked in a dispersed team with mostly individual team members spread across multiple countries in Asia, Europe and North-America, many timezones apart. For sure it would have been easier to all sit together in the same room with access to white boards, walls full of stickies and charts acting as information radiators, congregate around a water cooler and grabbing a beer after work.

Understanding the shortcomings of our environment, we actively worked to replicate as much of the collocated environment as we could:

  • having a dedicated water cooler instant messaging channel to just talk about stuff;
  • prefacing our morning standup meeting with a 15 min chat around the water cooler to connect on a personal level;
  • introducing an additional standup at the end of the working day in the East to align even more;
  • as much as possible pair working on presentations, documents and so on;
  • agreeing on basic housekeeping rules to ensure the quality and usability of our ever-expanding knowledge base;
  • having a team web page with team member pictures and some personal info;
  • experimenting with tools that provided us with a sense of working in the same office of which the layout was designed by ourselves;
  • using tools that allowed us to collaborate much in the same way as we would in person;
  • even using handheld whiteboards to quickly doodle and just hold up to the web cam;
  • and above all, always choose for the richest means of communication available.

On top of all of the above, we also ensured we could work together in person twice a year or so.

Is the agile manifesto wrong, then?

I don’t disagree with the aforementioned principle of the agile manifesto, but I also don’t think that a lack of collocation results in lack of efficiency or productivity. Today, there is no excuse for any professional to resort to long threads of time consuming emails when one can simply pick up the phone or start a video chat. The actions listed above are only a start, many more actions and experiments are possible. Find what your team needs to be effective in an online world, experiment often, learn and continue with what works.

Yes, being collocated makes communication easier, which in turn makes it easier to be efficient and productive. However, a lack of collocation does not prevent you from being productive. Take care and keep being productive!

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