This is part of our series on Working with Virtual Teams. You can see the other published portions of the series here.

This article was updated on May 4, 2020 with additional information regarding over communication.

We’ve learned a lot about agility and agile development teams over the past decade, but nothing has stretched the limits of our abilities to work in teams quite so much as 2020’s COVID-19 crisis. Within days, schools, churches, and businesses were entirely emptied of people and new policies had to be quickly written to deal with the fact that everyone (except those essential few) was self-isolating to avoid becoming another statistic.

This article is about the use of Scrum in a virtual environment – how long should you run your Sprint? How do you handle a daily Scrum? How do you manage backlog refinement? We all knew this day was coming — when most teams would be completely remote — but we thought there would be a transition period as more and more executives decided that having the entire planet as a pool for finding the best skills was more advantageous than hiring from only their local geographic region. Instead, we’ve been tossed into the world of completely remote teams in a matter of days.

So, here’s some thoughts and advice to help you cope as a Scrum Master, a Product Owner, and a leader:

  1. Consider shortened Sprints – When people work in isolation, particularly in home offices that really aren’t set up to be “professional” home offices yet (see Setting Up You AND Your Home Office for Success), their focus often wanders and productivity drops. You can ramp up the pressure a little by running one week Sprints. Such short timeframes can be just what your development teams need to stay focused. It will also reduce the length of your Sprint Planning, Review, and Retrospective events, making the transition to virtual Scrum events much easier to manage.
  2. Plan your events in advance – Whenever you plan to get people together for a meeting (whether its Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, or a team design discussion), plan the event out FIRST. Decide what you want to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it. Video conferences are hard to facilitate if you don’t have a plan. CLICK HERE to download our FREE “Successful Event Planning” guide!
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate – Nothing will keep your team more isolated than having no one ask, “How’s it going?” on a regular basis. Daily Scrums aren’t enough. ScrumMasters and Product Owners should be checking in with individual team members EVERY DAY to make sure that they have what they need. In addition, while you’re talking with them, ask what you could be doing to better support them. They might say, “nothing,” but just asking makes all the difference in the world. Managers should check in at least once-a-week — same details, though — how can I help? and what can I do to better support you? This is called the “propinquity effect” which tells us that the more you interact with someone, the better the relationship.
  4. Backlog refinement – Product Owners and ScrumMasters should routinely work together to ensure that the Product Backlog is ready for Backlog Refinement. Don’t limit refinement sessions because everyone is remote — hold shorter sessions more often (twice a week, maybe 45 minutes each). Product Owners, in particular should be doing more wire framing, flowcharting of workflows, etc. in order to provide as much written support as possible to what they are trying to communicate to the team when discussing backlog items. The more familiar your team is with the product they are building, the less this will be required.
  5. Sprint Reviews – This is where a shorter Sprint will come in handy. A one week Sprint usually needs about an hour to review (a proper review that is, not just the demonstration — there’s actually a lot more about this here). When using videoconferencing, get comfortable with screen sharing. Also, the ScrumMaster might want to encourage the developers figuring out who is going to demonstrate which feature and be ready when the Sprint Review begins to demonstrate. Nothing is more disengaging than having to switch from team member to team member during the demonstration and discovering that 1) we don’t know how to easily hand over control from one participant to the next and 2) that we have to wait a few minutes while each team member gets to the right “spot” in the product to demonstrate.
  6. Sprint Retrospective – Whatever you do, DON’T SKIP THE RETROSPECTIVE!!! It’s more important now, in a virtual team environment, than ever before. Use this opportunity every Sprint to discuss how well the team is or isn’t working and what can be done to improve it. We’re all working in an environment that is, one way or another, new. We can best support each other through these times by pointing out, productivity and professionally, what’s working, what isn’t working, and how we can fix. Also, be VERY adamant that at least one retrospective action be taken into Sprint Planning for the correction to be planned right into the Sprint.

The COVID-19 crisis may have introduced us to a variation on the new normal. The rapidity of this adaptation to virtual teams has left us staggered…looking for the right things to do to improve productivity in a world where we are isolated from one another in a very real way. By following the tips in this post as well as the other posts and videos in this series, you and your team can leverage the COVID crisis to outperform all of your competition and make a real difference.

By the way, the “Successful Event Planning” guide offered earlier in this post is normally reserved for Artisan students that attend the CSM and A-CSM training events. We are making the guide available to everyone for FREE for A LIMITED TIME. We hope you take us up on the offer!

Good luck!!

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