Team working togetherAlthough a key feature of agile development methodologies is the co-location of team members, it isn't always possible. On occasion, people who work in different locations and time zones are asked to collaborate on agile projects. We call that virtualization, and although it isn't ideal, it can work. The key is to understand the handicaps you're imposing on your agile team and take carefully considered steps to mitigate them.

Virtualization may be necessary for any number of reasons; for example:

  • Organizations need to find talent where it exists. For any given project, all the necessary resources may not be available in your market or your organization.
  • In matrixed organizations, where talent is distributed across multiple locations, it's generally not feasible - from a functional or political standpoint - to compel people to co-locate.
  • Needs change over time, and specialist or short term roles create a specific need for flexibility that often leads to remote resourcing

Although a virtual or distributed team model can work in each of these situations, it also comes with its own set of risks. If not properly addressed, these can undermine the enterprise agile journey as well as the project.

The concept of co-location - i.e., putting team members in the same room so they can work together and communicate directly - is closely entwined with one of the core agile principles of "individuals and interactions over process and tools." Once a team virtualizes, the members lose that face-to-face contact and may default to traditional communication channels such as email, instant message, and telephone calls. That can limit their effectiveness, productivity, and innovation.

Another issue is loss of cohesiveness. Instead of acting as members of a team, the players in a virtual environment may become individuals working on their own tasks - the antithesis of the agile team, which jointly owns and focuses on a single body of work.

In our work with clients across a wide range of projects, we've identified a number of steps that organizations can take to mitigate these problems.

Limit the number of virtualized locations a team must support, especially up front. The number of locations compounds the potential communication issues. If you're going virtual, we recommend you look for opportunities to cluster, so at least 2 team members are working together in each location. That will provide opportunities for in-person communication and collaboration, which enhance effectiveness, innovation, and productivity.

Ensure that all team members are in the same time zone or working the same core hours. When team members are spread across time zones, they typically wind up working different schedules, which leads to increased wait time and reduces productivity. Making sure that teams have as much shared time as possible during the workday can mitigate this risk.

Use video as a constant tool for communication. Organizations that elect to virtualize will need to invest in tools that scale across locations to allow people to work together. These include video telepresence, online collaboration, and agile lifecycle management and planning tools. Leveraging technology to enhance communication can help close the gap created by geographic distance. That holds true not only for members of the agile team, but also for management.

Some other ways to mitigate the handicaps of virtualization include establishing concrete communication best practices. If members can't participate in video calls, they should remember that telephone calls are preferable to emails and that emails are preferable to text or instant messages.

Another helpful practice is staging quarterly get-togethers in a single location. When members get to know each other, they begin to bond as a team, becoming greater than the sum of their individual knowledge, strengths, and talents.

Although virtualization is inevitable under some circumstances, the further you are from the ideal, the harder you'll have to work to make the same amount of progress. If every member of the team is in a different location, the team is spread across multiple time zones and the members haven't met or worked together before, you're facing some tough challenges. To the extent you can limit these risks, the better your team will function.

About the Authors

Dennis BowneDennis Bowne is a Principal at CapTech based out of the Richmond, VA office. Dennis has provided account management, IT leadership, and operational support over his 10 years with CapTech. In addition to his role managing projects for financial services, IT, and application development projects, he has played a significant role in operations support and development within CapTech's service offerings. He founded the User Experience service offering, helped establish the IT Program Management Office, and provides business development and strategic support for multiple client accounts. Dennis is also an Agile Coach and leads CapTech's Agile Transformation services, providing guidance on Scrum, Kanban, and Scaled Agile practices to multiple organizations.

Tom KriegerTom Krieger is a Director at CapTech Consulting, where he is an Agile coach and account lead delivering solutions for Fortune 500 clients. Tom is passionate about leading CapTech's clients through Agile transformations, working across business and IT leadership to foster changes to people, processes and company cultures. Tom is a Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), and Project Management Professional (PMP) with a degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech. Tom is also a published author with featured articles in Information Management magazine.

Anand FrancisAnand Francis is an IT leader who leverages agile coaching, organizational change management and scaled agile principles to bring IT organizations closer to their vision for innovation, speed and business customer satisfaction.