The importance of communication in remote agile development teams

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Today, we are seeing an increasing number of professionals going remote – with software developers leading the way. According to a DigitalOcean report, 86% of developers work remotely in some capacity.

But when it comes to adapting different work procedures to the remote modality, we need to be aware of the numerous communication challenges that can arise. In Agile, these include navigating different time zones, choosing the best tools, promoting timely information exchange, sharing responsibilities within the team, and embracing dynamic change.

Realizing the existence of these challenges and working proactively to tackle them is the single most powerful way to improve the performance of an agile team. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about driving efficient communication within the remote agile landscape.

Going beyond hard skills

In the past, I have seen first-hand that most problems agile teams face come from miscommunication. It’s rarely a lack of skills or technical knowledge that creates unnecessary overhead or clashing paths – rather incomplete specification, poor communication, or insufficient explanation. And the numbers confirm this: According to Salesforce, 86% of employees and executives point to the “lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.”

Even the nitty-gritty of communication affects team dynamics significantly. Everyone has different skills, diverse personalities, and can be on opposite sides of the extroversion scale – so it shouldn't be the case that the necessity for soft skills often gets overlooked. In fact, language and expression skills make a whole lot of difference in remote teams.

Communication is at the heart of agile – so mastering it is the key to success. Every organization should make improving soft skills a constant priority. Whether it’s hosting workshops that support personal development, organizing language courses, or providing access to career coaches that help individual team members, there are a number of ways to make it easier for your team to build on their soft skills.

On the team level, companies need to promote greater communication awareness. Cultivating transparency on both the business and team level is the foundation of effective communication as it allows everyone to ask the right questions. Besides, having a full overview enables better prioritization, risk assessment, and task distribution. I’ve learned that exchange always inspires better solutions. Even the little things like encouraging those involved in a process to stay on a call after a daily standup to brainstorm can do wonders!

Individual approach > one-size-fits-all

Inspiring your team to communicate their suggestions, concerns, and personal preferences gives you access to a pool of ideas, along with the responsibility to act on these inputs and be mindful of individual needs.

Managing teams with a uniform approach only results in frustration and conflict. Instead, companies need to strive for an individual approach to the needs and preferences of each team member. For example, in the past, team members have experienced personal issues that required them to take some weeks off. We had to find feasible solutions in terms of factors such as salary and vacation days. But being flexible is what allowed us to keep these valuable people. There will always be companies that offer higher salaries or more comprehensive benefits – but it’s the individual relationship that matters.

Monitoring team health is an absolute necessity. One-on-one feedback meetings allow for deeper conversions to happen. Maybe you could be seeing fantastic numbers in terms of the company perspective – but this tells you very little about the team dynamics, which is one of the main determinants of the sustainability of consistent results.

The individual approach should also pervade the sharing of responsibilities. Responsibilities should be distributed based on expertise; if someone excels at a subject, they should be involved in the process – either directly or as a reviewer. Personal preferences and career goals also matter, so ask your team members in which direction they want to develop.

Rotating tasks is another way to keep team members motivated. It ensures that every module has someone’s fingerprints on it. This further promotes communication rather than closed structures with isolated information that can easily fall between the cracks – the typical bus factor problem. To make the best of human talent, you really need to have clear and transparent communication in place.

Identifying ways to streamline communication

As we move further, it’s crucial to think about how new processes such as automation affect communication dynamics. To advance the right conclusions, the data that’s fed into the automation must be of high quality: It’s not just what’s being communicated that plays a role – but also the quality of the communication. This means you need to always assess the quality of data involved and if it’s standardized enough to be automated. Effective communication needs to be the basis of automation, not its result, so team members should always understand what variables matter in what context.

Having a centralized communication point (Slack, HipChat, or Gitter) is crucial so that all modular systems can come together and be further automated. With the right setup, team members can easily see which systems are failing or which ones are under attack.

Another way to streamline communication is by adopting the mindset of 100% code reviews where every piece of code always gets reviewed by a team member. Over time, I saw that this increased software quality not only by resolving issues that were discovered early on but also by the constant exchange among developers. The latter is, in fact, the primary value of code reviews.

Whenever new dynamics aren’t properly accompanied by new structures results suffer. In the case of transitioning agile to remote, it’s fundamental to always think about how to shape the way your organization approaches communication. It’s the most effective way to truly drive the potential each team has.

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