Are remote agile teams just as great as co-located ones?
Internet is flooded with many opinionated articles on why remote work is our future, why remote teams are just as good in their performance and success rates as co-located, that, being a naive observer, I could have easily believed that it’s the truth. But actually my experience was radically different. I didn’t meet a single person in my life who had said that remote job was great and that they wouldn’t wish to switch it to working in a co-located team.
It can be that I perceive it totally different from the majority of people. Or, articles on the internet are written by people working in companies who have stakes in remote work. Like those, whose interest is to sell products for remote collaboration, like Jira. Or companies like Buffer that are completely remote and they would like to assure potential Buffer candidates that it’s a great model, to attract talent.
My experience with remote teams
I experienced remote work for the first time when I started my own company back in 2008. It was a small web development agency, where I had individual contractor developers in Ukraine and clients located mainly in the first world countries. I was looking for new projects on freelance portals and had my own network of programmers in Ukraine. We didn’t have any office, so it was pure remote work for everybody. We worked according to Waterfall model, as project were short and we had a specification approved at the beginning of each one. Soon after I have started working like that, I moved to Slovakia.
With time things got complicated. I realized that I had been missing human interaction. Yes, I had calls, chats, and a lot of information out there in the Internet, but since I spent majority of the day alone next to my computer, I felt like I was losing my social skills. Evenings and weekends with friends and family didn’t help.
After 1 year of a home office I developed signs of depression and it took me 1 more year to realize that it was not just a burn-out from running a company. I lacked physical interaction with people. I had to stop sitting at home, freeze my web agency and go work somewhere where I had people around. One of my must-have criteria for a new occupation was to be part of a team, to work together with people towards a common goal. And my team should have been co-located.
I joined a corporation, and a growing number of human connections have gradually eliminated last signs of depression.
However, I found myself in a team setup that was not exactly what I was dreaming of. We had a local team, and I felt as a part of it, but almost all of us were working on different international projects. Essentially, we were all part of remote teams.
The fact that I was interacting with people on a daily basis, chit-chatting and sharing emotions was already great for my health. However, the project I was working on, lacked attractiveness for me as I didn’t really know my colleagues on the “other side”. Yes, we shared joy about our victories and reached milestones, but it was more like “business as usual”. We even didn’t know how the other one looked like, not to mention hobbies, interests or whatever.
Gradually parts of the corporation started massively shifting towards co-location. Luckily, I was in the affected sub-organization. I got two cross-functional scrum teams, one of which was almost co-located — only a product owner was in the US, and another one was a satellite team, where we had a couple of people from Slovakia, but 80% of the team was in the US. I was a scrum master in both.
You might wonder, were these teams any different in terms of effectiveness or productivity? Yes, they were. Let me describe how exactly.
Co-located Agile team
In a co-located team we had backend developers and testers, and myself as a scrum master. We were sitting next to each other and seldom had any home office. What happens to people that spend majority of their day time with each other? They are getting to know each other, discover similarities and differences in personal traits, and in work styles, too. Communication flows freely, whenever you have a question, you just ask. You go for a lunch together, your discussion topics are not limited to work. You enhance each other’s knowledge in many things, and you develop friendships.
With time we discovered that we all were interested in crypto, hiking, skiing, some of us in mountaineering, and some of us in psychology. We started spending some evenings or even weekend days together, some guys even went with each other on vacation for a week.
You might question, how positive personal relationships influence productivity and work effectiveness? I didn’t find a scientific research on that, but from my experience, that was what made us a real team. Not a collection of individuals. A lot of small factors, like not being shy anymore to ask a stupid question, or expecting somebody to be grumpy in the morning and not being offended by that, finding the right language to speak with different personalities when working in pairs, just help. These are the small things that are really small, but when there are a lot of them, they create an amplifying effect. And this is what makes a good team great.
There was one thing that was diminishing this synergy effect. It was the fact that our product owner was not co-located with us. Though he was the best product owner we could have, we were a bit tired of always conducting important meetings over video calls, as there were frequent problems with insufficient sound volume, or we were not comfortable gathering around just one computer (so that we are all equally heard and seen), or finding a room, or spontaneously sharing the screen from a computer which was not connected to the online meeting.
Also remote retros were pain in the a*s. We could no more use physical stickies or a white board, but we had to use an online tool like www.ideaboardz.com instead, to make sure that everybody felt equally included at all times. It made our retros be less informal and I think we all felt a little bit weird sitting all in one room and communicating through the computer instead of just talking freely.
A psychological fact — do you know that even a table in the room can create an artificial barrier between two people communicating? Can you imagine these long tables in meeting rooms, where your boss is sitting on one end, and you are sitting on another? That’s why for the discussion workshops the tables are removed from the room and chairs are arranged in a circle. Computers are just like tables. If you are sitting in the same room and communicating with each other through the computer, you are immediately creating an imaginary wall between each other.
Satellite Agile team
Another team was a satellite one. It was composed of several clusters of people agglomerated in different locations. We had two people in Slovakia, two in one US location, then four in another one and one person was completely remote. What was the team dynamics in this case?
Well, we didn’t develop friendships. We had no teambuildings, we didn’t know personal things about each other that much. In that sense it was like a remote team. With time, one of the locations started transforming into sort of a knowledge hub. More developers from our sub-organization were there, they were sharing experience with the guys in our team, discussing best practices, etc.
Soon our team discussions started looking like this. Team members from that hub were saying — we are going to have a meeting with other devs, because they just sit next to us, and we are going to solve the problem and come back to the team. The hub was the place where best practices were formulated and applied, better ways of working created, cross-project knowledge was shared. If we can name the location where the life was happening, it was clearly that hub. Our team members from that hub were the ones more smiling on our calls, had some internal jokes we couldn’t understand and they actually did work more than us, because they were in the right place to do it. It was much easier for them to approach a senior web developer who sat across the hall, than for a developer in another US location, via a Slack call. Simply because of the right environment.
In Slovakia, we felt a little left out. We didn’t feel a real part of the team. Yes, people were nice and we did good work, but there was something lacking. And that something was human communication, not planned and not strictly effective, not just once or twice a day, but a spontaneous face-to-face chat, going for a coffee once in a while, sitting next to each other when solving a problem.
Are distributed teams as innovative as co-located?
Great companies usually thrive for innovation. How easy is it to try out new things or new technology in a co-located team? Start with the fact that change is never easy. It makes you alter your behaviour, break your old ways of working and it’s never a pleasant thing in the beginning, even if you think it’s for the good. Now imagine you’d like to do it in a distributed team.
I’ll share one example. In my previous distributed team, one of the colleagues wanted to introduce Behaviour Driven Development (BDD) concept to the team and change the way how we formulated requirements and wrote tests. He offered to explain it to other team members. Not all of them were present on that meeting, so some of them didn’t understand why they had to switch to it. We ended up having our stories written in Given When Then scenarios that were formulated solely by him, and, because the rest didn’t really understand the “Why” of BDD, this introduced a huge overhead for everyone and the change didn’t take place. We soon reverted to the old ways of doing things, because it was much easier.
Surprisingly, in my next team which was co-located together with other teams in the open space, the idea of BDD emerged again. This time it was from our colleague who was not directly a member of our team. In several months, the change proved to be successful. And it spread to many teams at once. But what did it take? Many hours of meetings, organized workshops, discussions, one-to-ones, in other words, a lot of planned and spontaneous communication. It took a lot of effort, but the setup was right for this effort. It was much easier to find followers and supporters just stopping by people’s tables or having coffee with them. How would you do this in a distributed environment?
In co-located teams, you are all in one bowl. It’s easy for you to meet and chat. When you are distributed, you are essentially in silos. It takes time and effort from you to go out of your silo and knock at the door of the other person. And even if the effort is as easy as a series of clicks, it creates an additional complexity.
Think of best practices for user interfaces. The number of clicks you are making in order to get to some functionality is crucial there. It is the same when it comes to communication! If a person sits next to you, all you have to do is to start talking. If a person is online, what you have to do is to:
- open chat
- find their name there
- type a phrase like “can we chat?”
- wait for a reply
- make yourself coffee to kill time while waiting
- open the chat again
- oh shoot, video call? yeah, it’s better, my brain agrees (but my guts are so lazy!). Change your pyjama to something more decent, comb your hair, girls usually put quickly some makeup on here
- establish a video chat
- find out that the network speed is not enough for a good sound quality
- switch off the video
- do the audio chat.
And every time you are thinking of establishing another ad-hoc video chat like that you are like “oh no, do I really have to do this again?”
Additional clicks matter. With every additional click the probability that the action will take place drops.
I think we should not undermine the importance of physical human interaction. Remote teams will hardly be as joyful and effective as co-located teams. It’s that feeling when you are coming to work because you are looking forward to meeting people that you know, respect and like, to work together on some cool new goal. You are enjoying the very process.
That kind of feeling is glueing people together into great teams.
And great teams form great organizations.
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What’s your experience about working in co-located and remote teams? Please share in comments.