The proverbial remote work genie is out of the bottle. Whether your team is continuing fully remote, working in a hybrid arrangement, or something else, HOW we work has changed forever. 

This change in work environment presents some unique challenges for Agile teams that rely on rapid communication, continuous collaboration, and information transparency. A few years back I wrote about designing the ideal Agile team space to support these goals. While this older article is still relevant for in-person work, the topic is in need of a fresh look to reflect the reality of today — and what we’ve learned over the last year.

5 Key Ingredients for a Healthy Agile Team Space

The old axioms of Agile team workspace design no longer apply. So how do we adapt?

Let’s think of it like a cooking recipe. I love cheesecake — I can’t get enough of it. However, let’s imagine I need to make a vegan cheesecake. First, I’d make a list of the ingredients required for a traditional cheesecake. Next, I’d look at that list and determine what substitutions I could make in order to replace the non-vegan ingredients like sour cream and eggs, and make it vegan. 

So first, let’s make a list of the key ingredients for a good in-person Agile team space: 

  1. Colocated Teams
  2. Communication is easy, fast, and natural
  3. Dedicated team space
  4. Plenty of wall space, tools and resources handy
  5. Meeting spaces

Now that we have those ingredients, let’s see what substitutions we can make to create a good Agile Team space for remote work.

1. Colocated Teams

Principle 6 of the Agile Manifesto states: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” 

Colocation is the act of putting all members of a team together in the same space. Very specifically, colocation is having all team members within a “city bus” length of each other. The benefits of colocation are numerous, with the most notable being: 

  • Real time communication
  • Physical collaboration (whiteboards and sticky notes)
  • Create strong working relationships
  • Common working hours

(For more on the benefits of colocation, you can read this University of Cape Town research paper.)

Ingredient Substitution: Co-Timezone

This is probably the biggest substitution you’ll have to make. 

When the Agile Manifesto was written in February 2001, “face-to-face” was synonymous with colocated working. We didn’t have a choice in what “face-to-face” meant. Video conferencing was still in the high-priced early adopter market. Mainstream video conferencing wouldn’t even be introduced for two more years, until the debut of Skype. Zoom, the gold standard of video conferencing, didn’t launch until 2013.

And remember conducting remote meetings via audio only conference calls? They were lessons stoic frustration, as this humorous spoof highlights:

Flash forward 20 years and technology has changed the idea of “face-to-face” communication. My mother goes to church on Zoom and is carrying on “face-to-face” conversations with friends all over the world. With reliable broadband connection, we can now have teams that are located literally anywhere in the world.  

But should we? 

I can eat an entire chocolate cake in a single sitting. That doesn’t mean it’s in any way a good idea.

Likewise, while we can have a team with members in San Francisco, New York, Dublin, Prague and Hyderabad, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do so. 

Co-Timezone no more than two hours difference

One of the values of colocation was that the team shared common working hours. Even if Simca was working from home but still in the same city, she was still on the same time schedule as the rest of the team. For example, if Riley needed to talk with her at 4:00 pm, he knew it was still her working day. 

Co-timezoning is building teams that share the same time zone or are no more than two hours off from each other. This means a team with members in California could have members in Mountain and Central Time, while East Coast and Europe would need to be on another team. By building co-timezone teams, the team has at least six hours of overlap in their working day. This gives them flexibility in scheduling meetings and Agile events. Even if the team can only have two hours overlap, that still means those two hours will always be the focus of all collaboration and be taken up with the regular cadences of an Agile team (daily syncs, planning, reviews, retrospective, etc.)

2. Communication is easy, fast and natural

When you are not face-to-face you can’t lean back in your chair and just ask a question. Even your exclamation of frustration is just going to fall on the deaf ears of the cat. You won’t run into a teammate on the way to the restroom or while getting yourself coffee. 

In short, every act of communication will require a specific effort to engage in it. Nothing comes naturally when you’re remote. The work day suddenly becomes an unending series of back to back meetings to try and make up for all the communication we are not getting naturally. 

Ingredient Substitution: Create opportunities for “natural” communication

A number of substitutions can help here:

Create Osmotic Time

Face-to-face is about more than just having your camera on during the endless Zoom meetings. If all your time with your team is in structured, agenda-led events, you’re limiting the easy and natural flow of communication. Setting up regular unstructured, real-time events creates the opportunities to have natural exchanges of ideas and to dig beyond the active mind agenda items. 

Ten years ago, a small Agile consulting business operated successfully even though one of them lived three hours from the office. This person had a desk at the office, which they only used once a week. Every other morning a co-worker would fire up their computer and set up a video session with them at their home. If anyone needed to talk with the remote person, they would just sit at their office desk and talk with them. 

While you don’t have to go to this extreme, try setting up 30-60 minutes a day where the team is all online, on video, on audio and working. You might go the entire hour with the only sounds being keyboards and the occasional sigh. And you’ll be forming tighter bonds as a team.

Agile Team Space Puppies

Non-work communication

“Okay team, we’ve got a packed agenda so let’s get to it.” Sound familiar? In this era of Covid, with nearly every communication a scheduled affair and all those scheduled affairs being packed with official agenda, when was the last time you just talked with a teammate? 

A client of ours was lamenting that he doesn’t even know how one of his oldest colleagues is doing because every meeting is so “go, go, go.”

A remedy? Create time in your meetings to have informal conversations. Find a silly check-in question to start your Sprint Planning meeting, e.g., If you were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would you be? Or schedule a virtual happy hour and hold a trivia contest (with prizes). 

Asynchronous Communication Tools

Having a dedicated communication tool that allows for team members to engage in conversations when not in real time is useful, even to a co-located team. It bridges the gap between face-to-face interactions, and serves as a body of knowledge for past conversations and decisions. 

Not all such tools are created equally though. You’ll want a tool that has persistence in its communication. If you can’t add a new person without losing all the previous conversation, then it’s a lot like that group of mean kids in school who change the subject whenever you walk up. 

As of 2021, Slack is the gold standard for asynchronous communication tools with public and private channels as well as direct communication. Microsoft Teams is also a viable option. As of this writing, we wouldn’t recommend Google Chat because it’s more like group texting, and whether you can have persistent channels for newcomers is not obvious. 

Schedule In Person Time

Even if you intend to remain fully remote forever, don’t discount the value of bringing the team together from time to time for important events. The added benefit of co-timezone teams is the lower cost needed to bring them together from time to time. Even before the era of COVID, we recommended that distributed teams come together from time to time to form and renew the team bonds that really cannot be replicated in remote teams. 

The two-week blended Sprint: For a team that is working from home and close enough that they could work co-located, we recommend coming together every Sprint. Start your Sprint on a Thursday and end it on a Wednesday (a standard Applied Frameworks’ recommendation). Have the team in-person for days of Sprint End and Sprint Start and working from home the rest of the Sprint. Consider even paying for an overnight hotel room for team members that are more than a 90 minute commute. 

Every 6-8 Sprints: For more distributed teams, consider a regular cadence of bringing the team together for a week. Align this around a Sprint End, Sprint Start cycle. 

Every Big Room / PI Planning Event: If you are working in any kind of larger release Cadence, like SAFe Product Increments, it is absolutely critical to bring all the teams together for these events. Reduce the remote as much as humanly possible. Schedule non-work activities during this week and give the team, and teams of teams, plenty of unstructured time to form and renew bonds. 

3. Dedicated Agile team space

For in-person teams, having a dedicated space is closely linked to being colocated. For example, if you’re working in an open floor office and one of your team members is right next to you, while two others are two aisles away and a third is three people to your left, you are technically colocated. 

Also, a truly collocated team also requires a dedicated Agile team space, even if it is as little as your desks all together with a dedicated whiteboard. Without a dedicated Agile team space, you’re only a collection of like minded people interspersed with people of other minds. See my article on the ideal Agile workspace for more on an in-person team space. 

And let’s not even go to the extreme of “hot desking.” If we want teams to form bonds and work together, they need to know that their desks will be there every day for them. Let them put up a picture of their family, their car, their next vacation spot. Let them have identity both as a team and as individuals.

Ingredient Substitution: Dedicated Home Space

Replicating a Dedicated Team space in a remote team is one of the more difficult substitutions. Until we are all “jacked into the net” and sharing life like virtual reality rooms, we have to limit our substitutions to what we can do to make each individual’s home space more focused and dedicated. 

Thus, the individual team member needs a specific home space where they can work. When we go into the office, we have ergonomic chairs, sit/stand workstations, and broadband internet access.  At home we have a sagging couch, our lap, and bad DSL internet. If the individual isn’t healthy, then the team isn’t healthy.

One of our clients recognized this challenge immediately. In March of 2020 they gave each employee a $500 allowance to purchase office equipment and then repeated this in August of 2020. The Release Train Engineer I was coaching went from sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter to a sit /stand desk with an external monitor and audio. The difference in how they felt at the end of the day was palpable. 

Possible Compliance Requirements? 

The inspiration for this article actually came from a conversation I had with a director of facilities for a major European car manufacturer. He had read my original workplace article and wanted to get our thoughts on how COVID-19 might change the future of the physical workplace. He was also investigating the legal obligations his company would have for workplace health and safety if the workplace was now the engineer’s kitchen? 

He ultimately learned that in his European country, the employer had no responsibility based on the proposition that it was the worker’s voluntary choice to work from home. However, what happens though if it is no longer an option to go into the office? When the required office is your home, is the employer responsible for the ergonomics of that barstool at the kitchen counter? 

While we at Applied Frameworks are not lawyers and are not providing any legal opinions, we have been advising our clients to consult with their lawyers on these types of issues. In this regard, you may want to consider doing the same. 

4. Plenty of wall space, tools and resources handy

In-person, I can use my cheap Sharpie brand flip chart markers and they will get the job done just as well as my colleagues expensive Chartpak markers. Working remotely, if I’m using Facetime and you’re using Google Meet, we have a problem.

Working remotely, though, requires everyone to use the same tool.

Ingredient Substitution: Virtual Whiteboard Tool, Integrated Remote Tools

Jira is not a collaboration tool. Neither is Azure DevOps, VersionOne or any other process lifecycle tool. 

We want to replicate the free form feel of a white board or a wall and a stack of sticky notes. We also want it to be persistent, easy to use and flexible. To this end, you can use the built in whiteboard tools you find in Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other conferencing tools. 

In addition, in 2020, two tools rose above the fray as stand out multi-function collaboration tools. We recommend them both and it really comes down to personal preference. 

Miro Online Collaborative Tool – Here at Applied Frameworks, this is our preferred tool

Mural  Collaboration Tool – Feature for feature nearly identical to Miro

5. Meeting spaces

Colocation, Dedicated Team Space and even Wall Space can be enhanced by an appropriate amount of meeting spaces, both structured and unstructured. Think of it like salt in a recipe. You don’t need the salt. Adding it, though, will enhance the flavors of the dish. 

With the absence of physical spaces, “At least we’re not fighting over conference room space any more,” is a phrase we’ve heard a fair amount in the last year. But where are the couches in the common area, the two person huddle rooms along the hallway, even the single or multi-person office spaces?  While you can point to Zoom meeting, a Zoom meeting isn’t really a meeting space. It’s an ephemeral gathering with no permanence that requires specific scheduling and coordination. 

Ingredient Substitution: Virtual Meeting Rooms

This is one of the harder substitutions, because the opportunities with today’s technology are still limited. 

From our experience, the service Sococo is an excellent virtual meeting room experience. Your company can create a virtual building with common and dedicated meeting spaces. There are whiteboards and video conferencing associated with the various rooms. There is a new service, Welo, that looks similar to Sococo and might also be worth looking at. 

Remote Agile team spaces can work, with the right support

While the colocated, dedicated Agile team space team will always be the gold standard, technology has given us the ability to replicate the in-person experience enough to make it a viable solution moving forward. Just remember that it requires careful thought, specific support and it doesn’t come naturally.