By now, you may have heard the same pandemic tune over and over again: The emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 has shaken the ways of working we had taken for granted. This released an impressive amount of flexibility within organizations which were forced to adapt quickly to this disruption.

Welcome to the World of Remote Working

These days, we have become acquainted with the changed conditions of working on a remote basis exclusively. Most colleagues at inovex even had the privilege of having to make only a few adaptations to their mode of working, since application development has long been performed in distributed  teams working remotely. Maybe a few tweaks here and there, and projects keep on running just as effectively as before the pandemic hit.

Within our agile coaching and Scrum Master community at inovex we were also quick to inspect and adapt. (We routinely cite Heraclitus to our customers in that “the only constant remains change”; so it is only fair that we eat our own dog food as well.) Some colleagues shared valuable insights from their journeys into the “remote”, e.g. how to creatively improve remote retrospectives, make better use of whiteboarding tools and even brew our remote coffee.

However, even our most experienced agile coaches had some qualms about the changes we were facing in some aspects of our work, as the process of coaching people heavily depends on developing personal relationships and gathering feedback from informal encounters.

I have frequently stated, somewhat more than six months ago, that agile coaching only works on-site, when you have the opportunity to meet your clients and teams face-to-face, as you rely on making judgements about the environment they work in and soak up the vibes of the people you are coaching and the people they work with. It was one of those unthinkables: agile coaching on a high and professional level without being present on-site.

Yet, we have learned that it is indeed possible, and after having successfully started our first new 100% remote agile coaching projects, I would like to share some insights and learnings about how to manage a remote project kick-off successfully.

Boarding Into the Remote Agile Coaching World

A few differences of the new remote-only world versus the old ways of working already surface in the  project preparation phase:

  1. The chances of getting acquainted on a personal level with the client are somewhat restricted, and as a consequence some more attention than usual should be paid to the definition of goals and contract clarification, in order to avoid misconceptions that may be induced by remote communication. One advice would be to use visualisations and co-editing during video conferences that deal with project conceptioning, in order to ensure a common understanding of goals of the agile coaching project.
  2. Furthermore, keep in mind to prepare the technical infrastructure for the team that is to be coached. The level of sophistication in current use of tools may well provide an indication in terms of team remote collaboration maturity. So the agile coach should have a check-list of tools used for video calls, persistent chat, ticket- and information handling at hand. It should also be checked, for example, if the development team is equipped with tools to pair program in a remote setup. If required, the coaching should also from the start include a backlog item for improving remote work processes.
  3. The most relevant challenge that needs to be addressed is how to transpose coaching methods previously applied in an environment of personal meetings into a remote setup. Preparation on this matter is time well spent: In particular, the coach should consider how remote whiteboarding tools (like Miro or Mural) can be used in a way that encourages team participation and interaction. Another challenge is how, as a coach, to establish personal relationships with team members, which is hard to accommodate in a remote setting.

Tips and Tricks for the Virtual Sphere

Addressing some of the challenges mentioned above, we would like to share our learnings from our first successful coaching project kick-offs and initial phases of remote agile coaching:

  • Personal contact will fall short when providing agile coaching purely on-line, if it is not planned for proactively. We found that by planning exercises within the project-kick-off that encourage sharing some personal information by team-members, a foundation for getting to know each other can be laid. We found, for instance, that a Market of Skills (details are described in Lyssa Adkins’ book ‘Coaching Agile Teams’) can facilitate an exchange about the deeper motivation and hobbies of team members and provide points of reference for later conversations. This format can well be adapted with whiteboarding tools.

Market of Skills – An Ideal Basis for Discussion Within the Team

Market of Skills – Used Remotely With Mural

  • To accompany the casual aspects of work, we found informal meetings such as a “virtual coffee-maker” in the morning, or a “digital drink” at the end of a workday, helpful.
  • One-to-one meetings and coachings take more space in our new environment, as these help make up for not being able to “peek behind the curtain” of the work-day routines of our colleagues. Both in the project initiation phase, as well as during the project, these meetings help to gather individual pain points that require attention. To complete this picture, the coach participates in more working meetings of the team, sometimes without an active role, sometimes as moderator, in order to get some insight into team dynamics, individual tensions, and dysfunctional patterns within a team.

Summing up, we have learned during the past months that agile coaching can be done on an exclusively remote basis and live up to our standards with regards to quality and added business value we expect from our work. If benefits such as reduced travel times for all parties involved are also considered, we expect most of the remote coaching formats being tested at present to stay in the future, even when working on-site will be possible again.