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Remote Work

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Remote Work

The ScrumMaster's Guide to Remote Work

Retrium Team

Transitioning from a co-located office to a remote team is challenging. Without the proper tools, making this change suddenly and without a plan can quickly turn downright catastrophic. 

As your friends and advocates in the agile space, we want to support the community by providing as many resources as possible to help make this difficult time a little easier on everyone. 

One often overlooked area when transitioning to a distributed team is the role of the ScrumMaster and the changes to his or her duties in facilitating ceremonies.  

What does a ScrumMaster do? 

ScrumMasters perform a wide variety of tasks — most notably, they facilitate the team ceremonies. This includes sprint planning, daily standup facilitation, sprint review, retrospective facilitation, and backlog refinement. 

Although we’ve been working remotely since the inception of Retrium nearly five years ago, we understand that the majority of companies around the world are adjusting to this new work environment for the first time. 

In an effort to support the agile community, we’ve compiled a list of the most helpful tools, techniques, and advice for each step in the process to help the ScrumMaster on your team make a flawless transition into remote facilitation.

  1. Sprint Planning

Sprint planning determines what the scrum team is capable of building and how that build will be executed. 

Sprint planning for a distributed team is very different from planning for a co-located team. One roadblock that we often run into with a distributed team is a lack of engagement. 

When working from home, it is all too easy to become distracted by multi-tasking. There are two easy ways to combat this:

Utilize Video Conferencing - Record sprint planning by using a video call so your team has something to reference throughout the week. As communication cues are often lost in written conversation, video conferencing also provides critical face-to-face time that can quickly become non-existent without proper prioritization. This can leave your team feeling isolated and disengaged.

Work in Small Groups - By now, we’ve all heard of the two pizza rule, right? The rule is to never have more people in a meeting than can be fed by two pizzas. Well, breakouts follow a similar ideal structure. By breaking your team down into smaller groups, you are empowering more introverted personality types to confidently speak up in discussion, thus creating that organic engagement you’re aiming for.

The sprint planning includes three key roles

  1. ScrumMaster - the person who facilitates the ceremony. 
  2. Product Owner - the stakeholder and decision maker responsible for determining success of the sprint outcome. 
  3. Participant - your core team who will be working to achieve the goals of the sprint. 

  1. Daily Scrum / Standup

Daily standups are a crucial part of the ScrumMaster’s job. This ceremony provides progress updates, helps to alleviate bottlenecks, and aligns the team on the tasks ahead. 

Like everything else, trying to facilitate a distributed standup comes with it’s own unique set of challenges. 

✅ How do we accommodate different time zones?

✅ How can we manage multiple in-progress tasks simultaneously?

✅ What communication method can we all agree on? 

✅ Do all departments need to be included in this meeting? 

The most important aspect to consider when creating your response to these questions is to KNOW YOUR TEAM. Think about their personality types, communication styles, the workload of each team member, and overall dynamic. Then, follow these key steps:

Step 1: Create an Agenda

The first step to most undertakings is to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, right? By creating an agenda for each meeting, you’ll know exactly what should be discussed and when. 

💭 What did you do yesterday? 

💭 What are you doing today? 

💭 What will you do tomorrow? 

When creating your agenda, pay special attention to assigning a time limit to each topic. These meetings are meant to be informative and concise so, again, keep your specific team in mind, but create a realistic time box and stick to it. 

Step 2: Determine Your Focus

During standup, it’s important to stay focused on the task at hand. Remote teams can sometimes become starved for interaction, which can make them stray off topic easily. 

Try running a Team Radar to determine where your team’s energy lies before diving into your retrospective. You can also opt for a less structured facilitation technique like Lean Coffee™

Keep your team focused on updates, but of course, be sure to allow time for off-topic conversation throughout the day to ensure that your team maintains their trust and bond with one another. 

Step 3: Find a Frequency that Works for Your Team

Maybe a daily standup is perfect for your team — the standard 9:00 AM works for everyone and there are no issues. Great! 

Well, more often than not, you’ll run into scheduling conflicts revolving around time zones, homelife schedules, etc. This is especially relevant on a distributed team. It is important to be flexible and find a time that is reasonable for ALL members on your team, or you will quickly build resentment and lose energy.

Implement a daily standup at the most convenient time with relevant parties to exchange information that is pertinent to their specific work. But as far as rounding up the whole team, maybe consider hosting a weekly meeting instead, since not all tasks will be relevant to all team members.

Step 4: Agree on a Communication Method

📞Maybe your team is shy on camera and works best over the phone. 

💻Maybe everyone is very responsive to emails and there isn’t a need for verbal communication. 

🎥Maybe video calls are the exact method you’ve been searching for. 

Point is, it really doesn’t matter which form of communication you choose. As long as everyone on the team can agree to use it, it’s perfect. The trouble with remote communication arises when some use video calls, some call in from a landline, and some only respond to emails. It is imperative that everyone agrees to one type of communication. 

The most important aspect of facilitating a successful standup is to create a process that best fits YOUR team. Collaboratively decide on a communication method and the best time to meet, and run with it. 

Some of our favorite remote scrum facilitation tools Include:

  1. Sprint Review / Demo

During the sprint review, the Scrum Team and the stakeholders convene regarding the sprint. When possible, it is best that these conversations surround a tangible demonstration of the progress made during the sprint. 

Common questions include: 

🤔What was accomplished? 

🤔What is yet to do? 

🤔What blockers were faced? 

🤔What went well?

🤔Which issues needed to be solved? 

🤔What are the next steps? 

This open dialogue is followed by a review of the timeline, budget, potential capabilities, and marketplace for the next anticipated releases of functionality and capability of the product. 

Some ways to strengthen your sprint review include: 

⏰Do a Time Check
Having a distributed team means having distributed time zones to be mindful of. Before you schedule your meeting, take care to ensure you’re not scheduling outside of work hours for your teammates.

👋Take Time to Greet One Another
In distributed teams, whether you’re familiar with everyone or not, it’s important to build trust outside of your daily tasks. By allowing time for banter and life updates, you’re allowing your team to bond with each other. 

🗣Ask for Clear Feedback
Distributed teams leave no room for ambiguity as it often leads people far off topic. Be sure you’re being clear when asking for questions, comments, or feedback. 

  1. Sprint Retrospective Facilitation

It can be argued that retrospecting is the most important step in your sprint — it is the step in which your team discusses what well and what didn’t go so well during the sprint, and decides how to move forward as a team. 

According to MadDeveloper, there are nine key steps to facilitating a great distributed retrospective: 

  1. Prep for the meeting at least 24 hours in advance
  2. Send a reminder prior to the meeting
  3. Make sure everyone uses the same method of communication
  4. Everyone should have their own space to participate
  5. Everyone should be represented by either their physical body or an avatar 
  6. Give your retrospective a time limit — 60 minute max is preferred
  7. Everyone should feel safe to participate — no recording
  8. Acknowledge that this is hard!
  9. Acknowledge the Prime Directive

Being such a crucial step in the sprint process, it is imperative that you use the correct facilitation technique for your team and for each specific scenario. 

For straight-forward retros, go with an easy fan-favorite like Start, Stop, Continue which allows participants to add their thoughts to predetermined columns. 

For more open-ended retros, you might try Lean Coffee™, which is essentially a clean slate for people to add topics into columns as they see fit. 

You might also consider retrospecting on qualitative data, such as gauging how people feel about a project. For this, you might consider using Mad, Sad, Glad or Team Radar.

Some of our favorite remote retrospective facilitation tools include: 

  1. Backlog Refinement / Grooming

The final step before moving onto your next sprint is the Backlog Refinement or Backlog Grooming. In this step, the ScrumMaster will organize your teams backlog and ensure that it is as up to date as possible for the organizational purposes of both the Scrum Team as well as the Stakeholders. 

According to Miro, a fan-favorite tool, there are four steps to backlog refinement.

  1. Remove completed stories
  2. Redefine and confirm remaining stories
  3. Prioritize each story
  4. Review the estimated time required for each story

Some of our favorite tools for remote planning poker include:

The world is chaotic right now and this sudden transition to remote work can feel really stressful. We understand that being a ScrumMaster on a distributed team is challenging — but it’s not impossible. With these tips and tools, we’re confident that you’ll be back to performing seamless ceremonies in no time. 

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