Visibility Shift In Distributed Teams

“Distributed agile is hard” is what I often hear. And yes, after working remotely in various distributed teams for 8 years, I agree. But I am going to argue that this is a good thing.

Basically I believe that working in a distributed environment is like using Scrum – it does not solve your problems, but makes them more visible. I like to call this a “visibility shift”.

Visibility Shift In Distributed Teams

(photo by slackpics)

With the challenges being more visible, a distributed team can actually make it easier to adapt an agile approach to software development. Especially if it is a team where everyone works remotely (see “Remote Worker, Distributed Team”).

Value vs. presence

Working remotely makes it harder to verify whether someone is at work all the time or not. You cannot look around you and see other people sitting in front of their computers or having discussions.

And this is good. Because without this notion of presence, something else becomes more visible: the actual value delivered. Because at the end of the day what counts is not the fact that we have been to work, but the new feature or a fixed bug.

(Just to be clear: I am not saying that value delivered is not visible in the co-located environment. But in the distributed setup it is one of the very few visible signs that someone was at work. Which is great because this is what agile is all about – focusing on value.)

Communication challenges

If your team suffers from poor communication or endless meetings, working remotely will make this even more conspicuous.

It is really hard to stay awake during a long teleconference meeting. And this is good. Because it shows how useless meetings are in general. And by working remotely you will have less of them, in favor of more asynchronous communication.

Trust issues

Another thing that becomes painfully visible in the distributed setup is lack of trust.

I heard this statement from a manager on why distributed teams are hard for him: “Sometimes I have to go in person to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to”. Others are worried about their employees browsing Facebook instead of working. These are all signs that the level of trust in the team is low. And yeah… such a team would have a really hard time working in a distributed model, because the trust issue would be even more visible.

All in all

So yes, distributed teams do face challenges. But they face them because things that matter, like value delivered, communication and trust issues, are more visible to them. Which is good, because making an issue visible is the first step for improvement.

(originally published at SoftwareMill’s blog)

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