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Agile in the World of Work from Home (WFH)

Agile in the World of Work from Home (WFH)

More than a new buzzword, ‘work from home’ is happening now around the globe. An ideal arrangement for an Agile team is to have a co-located team where the Product Owner (PO), Scrum Master (SM), and all team members are co-located. However, from a practical viewpoint, we do need to work in a distributed mode wherein part of the team is onsite and part of the team offshore. Over a certain period of time, we have almost perfected the processes to work in such a distributed environment.

However, in today’s situation, wherein almost the whole world is impacted by the spread of novel coronavirus, Work from Home (WFH) is a new reality (WFH refers to all team members working from home). When you look at the ideal co-located team and the compromise in the form of a distributed team, WFH seems to be impractical for Agile teams.

While we can’t avoid WFH and can’t move away from Agile, there is no alternative to make Agile work in the WFH scenario. So, let’s explore if there is a disciplined approach to make Agile/Scrum work in the current situation. First, let’s examine the main challenges while working from home:

  • Certain Agile best practices such as face to face (F2F) communication, huddling together, Pair Programming, etc. are not doable while working from home.
  • Communication: F2F communication is not possible, which necessitates the usage of other channels like Zoom, MS Team, Jabber, WhatsApp, Skype, phone calls, etc. With multiple channels and the availability of social media sites, there may be many distractions.
  • Coordination: There is a possibility of more than one person taking up a task leading to an unproductive duplication of effort. Also, being at home, different team members may like to work at different times, adding to coordination issues.
  • Handoffs: It is common to have different team members working on the same story and resulting in dependence on other team members. In the absence of F2F conversation, there may be a time lag to communicate when one has completed the work, and the other can start.
  • The non-formal environment at home may result in laziness, unhealthy sitting posture, and overeating, which may lead to productivity loss/illness.

Possible solutions to face WFH challenges:

Planning

  • During Sprint/Release planning, divide the tasks in such a way that there is minimal dependence on others. It might sound against agile philosophy, but in the given scenario, this would help the team to be productive.

Sprint Execution

  • Working Agreement: This is a contract that lists the boundaries that define which team members agree to operate and establishes behavioral standards, values, and norms. SM needs to arrive at the new working agreement with the team concerning working hours, daily sync-up, etc.
  • Working Time: There needs to be enough overlap in the working hours to minimize coordination issues. It is advised to have a minimum of 5-6 hours of overlap within team members of the same scrum team. Different teams may decide on different working times.
  • Daily Sync-up
    • Fix a time for daily sync-up with communication channels like zoom, conference bridge number, etc.
    • Make it mandatory to attend the sync-up
    • Offer to share the screen displaying Scrum board during the sync-up so that it is easier to understand the updates
    • The team may do the sync-up twice daily
    • Restrict the sync-up duration to less than 15 minutes
    • Role of SM to resolve impediments is even more important in this situation
  • Status update in the tool
    • The tool (e.g., TFS, Jira) used to track progress on Backlog items to be updated in real-time (not at the end of the day). As soon as a person picks up a task, he/she should mark it as In-progress, so that no other person picks up the same task. Also, the completion of the task should be marked promptly.
  • Extra care while check-in: Ensure that any check-in does not result in build failure or break in any functionality affecting multiple persons. Depending on the state of CI/CD implementation in your organization, running automated tests or some manual testing may be performed before any check-in.

Sprint Completion

  • Completing Sprint objectives in WFH calls for extra commitment and hence extra celebrations. So, it should be tracked and recognized appropriately.
  • Retrospective: As the team might be under pressure to meet the next Sprint objectives, there may be a tendency to skip retrospection. However, it is even more important in this situation, as teams need to fine-tune the processes and working agreement.

Healthy Working Environment (Applicable to all, not specific to Agile)

  • It is a good practice to prepare for working hours just like it is done while leaving for office like personal grooming, dressing, etc.
  • Use a comfortable chair and table while working. Avoid using a sofa-set or bed for working.
  • Avoid personal email and social media sites during working hours.
  • Restrict eating to a specific time and avoid falling into the binge eating trap.
  • WFH restricts normal movement, walking, etc., but on the positive side, it saves travel time. This saved time can be used for physical exercise, yoga, etc. to keep you in good health.

Role of Scrum Master (SM)

The Scrum Master plays an important role in Scrum, but his/her role is even more critical in a WFH scenario to minimize chaos and ensure smooth coordination. SM needs to have the skills to take care of following effectively:

  • Arrive at a consensus on new working agreement with the team as outlined above.
  • Facilitation of the sync-up meeting: Ensure timeboxing, resolution of impediments.
  • Monitoring & Tracking: Closely track different work items. If any task is taking more time, assess whether anyone else needs to be involved.
  • Ensuring quality through effective coding standards, peer reviews, test automation, etc.
  • Foresight to look at dependencies and pro-actively work to resolve the same.
  • Ensure timely retrospection, which is an opportunity to acknowledge your team member’s concerns and recommend action items for improvement.
  • Motivate the team.
  • Timely communication to all the stakeholders informing them of delays in any planned story or feature completion.
  • Reporting for metrics like Velocity, Predictability, Test Automation, Code coverage, etc.

Conclusion

Work from home is a reality in the wake of worldwide spread and fear of the novel Coronavirus. The Scrum/Agile processes need to evolve to adapt to this new situation. With a disciplined approach and skilled Scrum Master, it is possible to keep productivity and quality of deliverables at the same level as working from an office.

 

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About the Author

Harish Chander

Harish is a Product owner and an Agile coach. He is also a member of Agile Experts group where he loves training and mentoring different teams at Infogain on Agile, Scrum and SAFe. Harish has over 20 years of experience in the IT industry, and was part of the team, which pioneered implementation of SAFe in offshoring context.