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Suddenly Distributed: Effective Agility in the Age of Coronavirus

Retrium Team

During this unique time when many organizations have had to quickly adapt to a distributed work setups, experts Mark Kilby, Lisette Sutherland, Judy Rees, Charles Humble, Shane Hastie, Steve McCann, and David Horowitz, gathered together for an informative webinar about  Effective Agility in the Age of the Coronavirus.

From New Zealand to New York, this question and answer style webinar allowed viewers from around the world to submit their remote work questions to be answered by the experts who understand them best. 

The webinar began with David Horowitz saying something we’ve all been thinking these past couple of weeks: 

Much of what made sense yesterday does not make sense today… uncertainty is the new normal and life feels out of our control.” 

With this statement being as true as ever, he explained how this webinar would serve as his 15% Solution. A 15% solution reveals the actions people can take immediately, no matter how small, proving that there are ways to make these times a bit easier.

 Though we don’t currently know how long the current situation may last or what may come from it, we must utilize our ability to connect, communicate, and be productive with the tools we already have. Most of all, we must allow ourselves to feel a sense of togetherness and normalcy any way we can. 

Read on for the top takeaways of this valuable discussion and a recap of the Q+A’s. 

Communication Is Key For Remote Teams

Constant communication is the key to success for both co-located and distributed teams alike. Remember to communicate more often regarding work-related topics, but also be mindful of checking in on one another and making an effort to connect emotionally. 

As Judy Rees of Rees McCann explained:

“We’re all feeling stressed and challenged, give yourself a break and be okay with the fact that you’re not comfortable right now… this too will pass.”

Here is more advice from the speakers about communication: 

Q: How do you achieve “osmotic communication” and group awareness when distributed? 

A: Create a virtual space and keep the conversations going between meetings, remembering that just because the meeting is over doesn’t mean communication should stop. Dedicate a team Slack channel for each team to keep the conversations flowing in one place throughout the day. This dedicated backchannel becomes part of the team’s virtual space.

Q: In a situation of little trust, how do you create trust between clients and vendors while in isolation?

A: One of the easiest ways to build trust is through empathy, emotional understanding, and of course - constant communication. Video calls, non-work related chats, and open and honest conversation will all help to build trust between one another. Clients and vendors are just as human as your team. Teach out to them and see how they are doing in this difficult time.

Q: What are some things we can say or do to help with guidance? 

A: “To all of you that are leaders, be kind, be understanding, and let people know it's okay to be vulnerable,” said Charles Humble of, “a little bit of kindness goes a really long way.”

How To Keep Engagement & Productivity High As A Distributed Team

Remaining engaged and productive, especially in a home setting can be tough. Doing so when you’re not used to working remotely can be even more challenging. Steve McCann, a Remote Team Relationship Management Expert, recommends physical activity to help increase concentration and combat burnout, whether that be a quick walk or an online yoga class. 

Here are the tips from the speakers about engagement and productivity:

Q: What are some best practices for keeping my team engaged while working from home? How can I help the team still feel connected and avoid feeling isolated? 

A: Dedicate time to celebrate things you normally would in an office, such as video conferencing birthday parties or having a virtual team coffee break in the morning. Try to bring joy to the situation by engaging the team in happy events turned into virtual bonding opportunities. The Random Coffees and Donut Slack extensions are a great way to build relationships and stay connected. 

Q: Is there something a scrum master can do specifically to maintain productivity?

A: Utilize the Pomodoro technique to break up the day and take regular breaks. It’s not realistic to sit for 8 hours straight and some of the best ideas tend to come when you step away from your laptop. Remember: productivity is not linked to the number of hours worked in a day. 

Q: How to reduce or prevent interruption at home by children or their families? Especially for those who don’t have a dedicated home office room.

A: Teams should be empathetic to this situation, many families are facing doing childcare, homeschooling, and their job at the same time. Interruptions will be inevitable, so give people some grace during this time. 

In terms of specific tips for how to reduce interruption, you can establish with your family members that you are indeed ‘going to work’ still, even though you’re at home. Do your best to communicate with family members that you need X amount of uninterrupted hours, with the intention of spending time together outside of that time. For instance: “Hey little Johnny — Dad has to go to work right now. I’ll be at work for about 4 hours. In the meantime, I bought this puzzle that I’d love for you to try putting together! When I’m done, let’s go for a bike ride!” 

How To Master The Remote Transition

While simply plopping down on the couch with your laptop can be considered “working from home,” there are steps you and your team can take to make the transition from office to remote work a bit more seamless. 

Following some traditional office practices like creating a designated time frame to work within provides a routine and helps team members to be more comfortable. Lift team members’ spirits up by continuing with small office-antics, but virtually, like celebrating a coworker's birthday or doing a funny pet video call. 

Q: How important is celebrating with a team remotely versus co-located (in-office)?

A: It's even more important to celebrate with your team remotely! Social isolation and disconnect can be common within remote teams who don’t communicate effectively or enough. This holds true especially in times like these. Make a point to celebrate birthdays, small and big victories, fun national holidays (ex: National Kitten Day on July 10th). 

Q: How do consultants joining a new team adapt to a virtual environment? Especially on the onboarding/data gathering / interviewing / investigation fronts?

A: We agree that frequent check-ins and virtual working sessions via video conferences help recreate an in-person experience. New team members will feel especially isolated, so taking the extra time to help them feel welcome and prepared can make a huge difference. 

Here’s a simple rule: keep your cameras on and build a virtual community. Think about the community you had in person, and replicate it virtually. Use the technology at your fingertips! 

Q: What is the first and most important step in making a distributed team a "performing" agile team?

A: Though successful agile teams are experts at adapting to change, some sort of routine does need to be in place for a remote agile team to thrive. These could include:

🗣 Established modes of communication

👏 A rhythm to the collaboration events

📝 A process for gathering, distributing, and monitoring action items

☁️ An open mind


Though this is an uncertain and unprecedented time, we have technology to thank for making remote work possible. Shane Hastie, Director of Community Development at, suggests: 

Find your virtual space - we’re used to having the physical space, but we still have the tools we need. Because we were thrown into this, it’s easy to forget we have the tools.” 

Here are some other tools you can have in your agile toolkit to ensure remote working success: 

Q: What tools or resources can be used to effectively replace "white boarding" (which we use regularly for process mapping and brainstorming) in a virtual meeting?

A: Using a shared Google Doc as a virtual whiteboard is a great way to replicate this exercise virtually. There are other great tools such as Miro and MURAL which give you a near infinite whiteboard.

Q: Usually after the review, we ask the stakeholders to rate the increment. We do that by asking them to give a number between 0-5 on a Post-It with a comment. Afterward, we collect all the numbers and then we have an average of the level of happiness. Is there an app/website/tool that could help us do this online without it being chaos?

A: Retrium is a great tool for anonymously gauging the morale, thoughts, opinions, and overall success of an increment. To see if it would be a good fit for your team, start a free trial.

Q: What online tools would you recommend and how would you run a Big Room Planning session virtually for approximately 30 people working remotely with the facilitator also being remote?

A: We recommend Zoom for an easy, user-friendly, option for remote meetings. It has a user-friendly interface and provides breakout rooms for small group strategizing. We would also recommend using an external chat tool like Slack or MS Teams where you have an overall "planning event" channel, and then a channel for each breakout. This makes it easier to coordinate between rooms, help people reconvene from a break as they may have the chat app on their phone (but not Zoom), or keep the group informed if your meeting service has problems.

Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

The most important thing to remember during this time is that you are not alone

If you feel confused, upset, unsettled, or uncomfortable, remember there are thousands out there who are feeling the same and who want to help. Communication is key when it comes to team members continuing on and working productively, so remember to utilize all the tools and technology we’re lucky enough to have during this time. 

The more connected we remain (virtually), the better we will all feel. 

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