Summary: The pandemic has caused a permanent shift in ways of working. For most agile teams, that means that some or all of the members are working remotely. As a coach, I feel that coaching remote teams sucks. It is efficient but not effective.
What do I mean by coaching remote teams?
Let’s start with some agreement on what I mean by coaching remote teams. By “coaching” I mean the work that an agile coach does to support a team to leverage agile and Scrum and self-organize. Scrum Masters also coach as part of their role so this also applies to them even though they do more than just coach.
And when I say remote teams, I mean teams that are partly or completely distributed. Remote team members are not sitting and working together.
Prior to the pandemic, surveys showed that 75% of teams had at least some members who were distributed. During the pandemic, that number shifted to nearly 100% remote. Recently things have shifted slightly though most teams are still remote.
The 2022 State of Agile Coaching report showed that 4% of coaches were working in person, 25% were in a hybrid work environment and a whopping 72% were fully remote (see below),
Note the last line in the diagram above stating that 70.9% of coaches reported a moderate to severe impact on their coaching effectiveness with the move to remote work. You read that right – 70.9% of coaches reported a moderate to severe impact on their coaching effectiveness with the move to remote work.
We will come back to that in a moment.
Coaching Remote Teams is Efficient
As a coach, I have found that coaching a remote team is more efficient, for many of the same reasons that work from home is efficient:
- You can eliminate the commute and use your time more efficiently throughout the day.
- Coaches can intervene with remote teams at appropriate times while maintaining some distance and allowing the team time to learn and grow and figure things out on their own. (There is a reason that therapy sessions last an hour and you typically meet once per week.)
- Remote coaching tends to focus only on those sprint boundary events like Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Sprint retrospective. Which makes it easy to plan your schedule.
- Remote coaches can easily work for two or more clients on a part-time basis, providing more flexibility. Though one should be cautious to not abuse this. A client of mine recently found that they had hired a full-time, remote Scrum Master who was actually working full-time for another company at the same time!
So yes it is efficient to coach remotely, but is it effective? I think I’ve already tipped my hand on this.
Why I think it Sucks – Coaching Remote Teams is Ineffective
Coaching remote teams is not effective.
While not the biggest challenge that agile coaches face, being effective when coaching remote teams is definitely a challenge. In addition to the comment I noted earlier from the 2022 State of Agile Coaching Report, check out the diagram below of the top 5 challenges faced by Agile Coaches. “Working remotely” isn’t the top challenge, but it is one more challenge to add to a job that is already pretty challenging.
Why not? Well, there are a variety of reasons and I think it boils down to high-bandwidth communications. The early agile people called it ‘face-to-face’ communications. Let me explain.
My primary role is not agile coach at this time. When I was working as an agile coach, I had the good fortune to work with co-located teams most of the time. I consider myself fortunate in that I trained and coached over 100 teams in the last 10 years and less than 5 of those were distributed teams.
When you are coaching in person with the team, you are able to discern more about what is actually happening than just what people are saying. You can see body language, and reactions, and gauge the temperature in the room. You can feel the energy of the team or the corresponding lack of energy in the team. You can literally read the room.
You also have the benefit of seeing the team interact with each other outside the designated agile events or meetings. This is often where you will get a lot of information about the health of the team. Does the team leverage pair programming or mob programming? Do testers and developers partner together to build high-quality solutions? Or is code tossed over the wall and communications are passed through Jira tickets?
There is no equivalent to that power of direct observation when coaching remotely. If a team uses cameras consistently, you may be able to pick up on some of the body language and nonverbal clues. Unfortunately, most remote team don’t use cameras consistently.
My own experience with training and coaching is that in most meetings, about 1/3 of the participants turn on their cameras when asked. By default, most leave them off even if I request them to turn them on.
I did a poll in LinkedIn last month to try to get a sense of the number of people that use cameras consistently. The LinkedIn poll results are directionally aligned with my experience. There were 611 responses to the poll and 44% said that they use cameras most of the time for team meetings.
What About Coaching Outside the Team Meetings?
The chart above is about camera use during team meetings. However, formal Scrum events should take up only about 20% of a team’s time. How can coaches be effective when they are only seeing a small part of the team’s working day?
If you are coaching remotely, you can’t really be sure what each individual is doing or how the team is interacting outside the meetings.
Unfortunately, many coaches revert to focusing on the tool. They pull up the Jira board and run some reports to discern how the team is doing. They compare plans to actual, an old project management trick. Stories planned vs. completed. Hour estimated vs. actual. This behavior flies directly in the face of the agile value statement: “Individuals and Interactions over Process and Tools”.
It also runs counter to what Lean expert Taichi Ohno recommended:
Unfortunately, when you have remote teams your coaching won’t be effective:
- No one knows for sure what the team is doing outside their meetings
- Coaching focuses on the agile events, rather than on the important team aspects like team maturity, performance, psychological safety and overall team health. It is hard to be with the team when your engagement with them is limited to the small amount of time they have formal meetings.
- Most conversation is non-verbal. Sure what people says is important but how they say it, their body language and what they don’t say is just as important.
And that effectiveness is what I miss when coaching remote teams. That is why I say that it sucks.
Steps to Improve Coaching Effectiveness for Remote Teams
To avoid being all doom and gloom, let’s turn now to some practical steps that coaches can take to make their coaching more effective.
- Work with the team to make the use of cameras standard practice. This helps the team members and the coach to better communicate and engage with each other. There can be exceptions of course but have it be the general rule that you meet with cameras on.
- You can take the idea of cameras further and have full video during a set number of work hours. One of my former clients works in a fully distributed team. All team members join an MS Teams meeting room and work in there all day. If another team needs them, they can ‘pop in’ to the MS Teams room just as they would a physical team room. This is a big commitment for team members. If you can’t get teams to agree to a full day of this, try a half day or even a few hours per day.
- Encourage both pair programming and occasional mob programming sessions.
- Meet in person where possible. If your remote team is in the same town or within driving distance, have the sprint boundary meetings in person. One of my client teams experimented with this and found it was very helpful in building the informal team bonds. Team members were spread across Chicagoland with one in Milwaukee. Yet they all drove in to the office for the meetings at the end of one sprint and start of the next. They bonded over lunch.
- You can also do this type of team meeting on a quarterly basis. Or if your team is really distributed globally, perhaps you have a week of working together in one location at the start of your initiative.
Wrapping it Up
Distributed teams and remote work are the norm for the foreseeable future. Coaching those remote teams is efficient. However, coaches will have to step up their game for that coaching to be effective.