Can Remote Workers Ever Really Make Effective Agile Teams?

Remote workers in a video conference

An NPR story about collaboration and distance noted that some companies perceive an apparent conflict between being able to solve problems quickly and a dispersed workforce that is inherent in policies about telework. While advances in technology can make collaboration at a distance more viable, some team members feel that collocation adds significantly to the ability to deliver quickly.

Others argue that one can develop practices that make distributed work go well, and some of these practices benefit the business at large. Like all questions that involve organizations and the people in them, the answer is complicated and depends on the details.

Although remote work has benefits for both the organization and the people on a team by making it easier to find a good work-life balance while still being responsible to business needs, not everyone feels that the tradeoff is in favor of telework. According to the NPR story, some young employees said they want to learn from their older peers in person, and certain employees who worked remotely reported being less engaged or motivated.

The story quotes Robert Martin, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, as saying that rapid communication is essential to a successful agile project and in-person collaboration is best. As the Agile Manifesto states, agile teams should value individuals and interactions, and traditionally, this implies being in the same room. Even though tools can help, many people prefer face-to-face interactions.

However, others submit that effective virtual work is possible in an agile environment, too. The reality of working remotely—including asynchronously—can even be a driver for improved communication and coordination, such as requiring better documentation and more frequent check-ins.

Having team members who work remotely can even sometimes make the team more responsive to changes. For example, having team members in different time zones can help the team better address support issues while reducing the need for off-hours availability.

Collocation won’t solve all communication problems. Even when team members are all in the same room, collaboration can break down. For instance, in-person meetings provide basic interaction and face-to-face recognition, but following protocols that allow for even participation does a better job of helping attendees feel like equal contributors—regardless of where they are located.

Collaboration and communication are both essential and challenging, and while technology and tools won’t address all the problems, neither will being in the same physical location. Every team has different constraints and issues, and no one approach will work for everyone.

The one essential element of an effective agile team is continually evaluating how well you are following the values in the Agile Manifesto. By constantly inspecting and adapting your approaches to collaboration, especially in retrospectives, your team will find a solution that works.

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