Agile Reports from the Isolation Trenches
Picture this if you will: you start a new project, a new idea of a start-up company with an exciting new big data management software product. You conceptualize your company, its mission and values, the product and its main features and client type. Your time to market is a bit tight and Agile and Scrum seem to be the best options to frame your organizational culture and your teamwork. You are, yourself, a rookie Scrum Master. There is an almost complete overlap between team and organization. You’re ready and excited. You did your homework, took care of internal documentation, and are ready to welcome the team and start to work on your Sprint 0.
You know that Agile and Scrum both emphasize personal interaction, in person teamwork in a very organic and dynamic way. You have your location ready for everybody to work together and in close proximity, the walls are ready for your boards and informational posters. You know those will foster relationships and enable the work processes to naturally appear. You’re ready to facilitate your event calendar, to make sure everybody understands artefacts, events and roles, and to foster an Agile mindset.
Four days before the team is scheduled to meet for the first time, your country enters in lockdown, with everybody being sent home to work. Now what? How are we going to launch this project? How do you take a team most new to Scrum, who don’t all know each other, and have seen themselves but once before, and have them work together remotely as if they were in the same physical room?
Fortunately, the Scrum Master was not a rookie in terms of remote work. The first thing to be done was to elaborate a set of guidelines to working remotely AND to work from home — all in the context of an Agile/Scrum Team, all in the context of a lockdown, with team members having to juggle work and kids at home.
Guidelines for remote work
How do you turn a team set up to work face-to-face into a remote functional team? And in the psychological and sociological context of a worldwide pandemic? We got conservative and tolerant about the availability and level of concentration of our team members. Productivity was going to go down the drain, sooner or later, there was no way around it, and that was the assumption. People would need to step away to take care of the kids, spouses and themselves. Unnecessary pressure and performance demand were mitigated as much as possible. We would take what we could get. Nevertheless, there were some guidelines established:
1. The Daily Scrum was kept in the same parameters: fifteen minutes of video or audio conference call, in which progress was evaluated, any kind of problems shared, and solutions offered, and the next 24 hours planned accordingly. The time of the meeting was agreed upon by the whole team and was kept the same every day.
2. During what was determined to be working hours (9am to 6pm), a commitment was asked from the whole team to keep themselves available to answer chat messages or take part in calls. If by any reason they found themselves unable to do so, they were asked to let the rest of the team know, so everyone could adjust and adapt.
3. There was a Skype “team room” created, where anyone could join, and whoever was available could just sit muted in the background, if not engaged in active discussion, to create an illusion of a collective workroom.
4. The team was encouraged to create any kind of communication channel it felt was needed, either for work meetings or just to talk and get to know each other. No limits to this. People needed to bond and establish connections organically.
5. We established a bit of a temporal leeway for bigger meetings, that had a supposed fixed timeframe (like Plannings, Reviews and Retros). That would account for communications lag, breaks in audio or video, and general life interrupting work, in a context where kids and other family members are sharing our “office”.
6. There was a stern determination to respect work hours. We determined that we would limit our work hours, just like we were working in office. A sustainable pace had to be met and the temptation of thinking of each of us being always available all of the time had to be curbed.
7. And it was affirmed, time and again, that we would each be available to hear and help where we could (particularly team leaders), if any team member started to feel overwhelmed or overtaxed.
This was our starting point, the basis for the organic establishment of work habits and relationships. We knew that we had to let things develop naturally, that there would be conflict and misunderstandings, but we wanted everyone to feel safe and at ease to air any worries or problems that might arise.
Guidelines for working in a domestic environment
We had to worry about having suddenly changed to remote work, but we had the particular worry that suddenly everybody was working from home, in some cases fully immersed in a domestic environment, having to take care of kids and their schoolwork, while still working a full time job. Simultaneously. Without any shred of control when one would overstep the other. And we weren’t really sure how long the situation would stay like that.
Moreover, very few members had any kind of experience of keeping a sustainable work routine at home, and the temptations to procrastinate or not stop working were ever present. So, we established a few guidelines for this also, although some were just a different iteration on remote work:
1. Create and respect a routine to start the day, just as if you were going out to go to the office. It becomes easier to work from home, if our behaviour is modelled after the one we would have working out of the home. We should keep our daily rituals and get dressed in something other than our pyjamas. The only advantage of a situation like this should be having our commute reduced to zero and being able to set our alarm for a few hours later.
2. Respect your working hours (in our case, 9 am to 6 pm), by staying available to answer any queries through message, mail or call, during that time.
3. If at any time, or for any reason, you should find you’re going to be unavailable, you should let the rest of the team know. We can adjust and adapt, in true Agile fashion, but only if the information flows freely. We are all aware that you could have to jump from your seat to catch your suddenly flying toddler, but let us know you won’t be there, whenever possible.
4. Do small frequent breaks in your work. Every half hour or so, get up walk around, relax for two or three minutes. When you work at an office, with a team, there’s spontaneous conversations going around, someone will interject and divert your attention, giving you brain some breathing room. Inject that breathing room artificially, stopping for a few minutes, every half an hour.
5. Take one longer break in the morning period and another in the afternoon, for ten to fifteen minutes. Drink some coffee, some tea, a glass of water. Take a look out the window, go on Facebook, whatever, just take a break.
6. Stop for lunch, for at least half an hour. When working from home, especially if you’re alone, there’s a temptation to take your lunch at your desk. Don’t. Give yourself some time to enjoy your food, to get in touch with friends and loved ones, to do some window shopping online, just like you would in out-of-the-house work scenario.
7. Ask for help, and be available to render help, anytime you feel or perceive difficulties. The only way to overcome this incredibly difficult period is to work together and support each other, and this is no empty cliché. Create tolerance and overwhelming respect for all your colleagues. We are all battling enormous odds and handling crisis on a daily basis.
This is where we started. The expectation was that calendars wouldn’t be met, that productivity would take time to reach an acceptable level, that it would take time and a lot of adaptation to really get things going. After all, there was a lot of learning to be done for all team members, a lot of things would have to be met with consensus, and there was a terrible external context wreaking havoc with everybody’s plans and expectations. Why should we be any different?
The fact is, the first week went without a hitch. Every single learning session was ready, every single interruption was dealt with gracefully, every single decision was taken and implemented (including last minute computer purchases), and it seemed that we would be better off than expected. The team was highly motivated and keen to succeed, and everybody was ready to accommodate everybody else. Were we going to make it? To be continued…