June 20, 2022

Remote Work and Scrum

I am sure everyone has seen Elon Musk’s email to his team at Tesla telling them they needed to get back in the office. Elon has joined other high-profile companies such as Netflix and Goldman Sachs making work in the office mandatory. For many of these organizations, they cite the reason for moving back into the office as improved collaboration or in the case of Tesla, to be fair to the factory workers who need to physically be in the office. When asked about remote work, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, who is also a famous DJ on the weekends, said “It is not ideal for us, it is not the new normal”, he then went on to say “It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible and is not conducive to productivity.” David Solomon cites the collaborative, innovative, apprenticeship model of Goldman Sachs as not working well in a remote, distributed manner. So is this true? Is collaboration better when you are in person? And what does this mean for remote Scrum Teams?

There have been numerous studies on the productivity of workers during Covid forced work from home and also prior to Covid. The data all suggest that knowledge workers are more productive. Prodoscore looked at 800,000 workers and found that when comparing 2019 to after March 2020 that workers were a staggering 47% more productive. Of course, working during a pandemic is very different from “normal” remote working with added distractions of kids out of school, and the constant worry of catching a very dangerous disease. What is shocking is that this study finds productivity much higher than a 2001 study by Stanfords Nichols Bloom who cited a 13% productivity bump. Perhaps the added stress of the pandemic provided fantastic motivation to improve productivity. But productivity describes one way of measuring success. For many Scrum Teams finishing tasks is less important than delivering value toward the Product Goal and Sprint Goals. Delivering value and innovation is perhaps a better measure of success (that is why Evidence-Based Management is so focused on outcomes, not motion metrics). And that is where prior academic research really does discourage remote working. Robert E Kraut from Carnegie Mellon in a 2001 HCI study wrote “collaboration at a distance remains substantially harder to accomplish than collaboration when members of a work group are collocated”.  And we all know that collaboration is an element of innovation and creativity. But 2001 is very different from 2022 (or 2020) with improved bandwidth, better tools, and perhaps an appreciation of the culture required to effectively work remotely. I could go on citing different studies, but I think the bottom line is:

Remote work can be more productive than in-person work, but to be more effective you have to be mindful of the constraints (timezones, home environment, home bandwidth), tools (Zoom, Mural, GitHub, Google, Teams), and the culture required for remote working. Also, just because people are in the office does not mean that they are collaborating effectively. In fact, after 2 years of remote work, many of the skills for in-person work went unpracticed. 

For a Scrum Team, remote or in-person work requires special attention to ensure that it is both enjoyable and productive. Actually, this is true for all teams, but in the case of Scrum, the impact of remote work is amplified in the same ways that Scrum amplifies value and challenges. From my observations over the last 2 ½ years of remote work at Scrum.org, there are 3 things to focus on:

  • Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes - It is so easy to become heads down on the task that you forget the outcome you are seeking. Remote work is by nature far more focused. This is great for getting stuff done but can pose a risk when dealing with work that has a high degree of complexity and risk. It is important to balance focus with transparency. One way is to remind yourself or your team what the outcome is, by providing this context the work is more likely to empower the team to make creative, innovative decisions rather than do planning once and then get going, alone. In the case of many outcomes, it will also encourage collaboration either when doing the work or reviewing the solution. It seems that when you flip a Product Backlog Item to describe the customers, the outcome sought, and a way to measure it, people are more likely to seek the help and support of others.  
  • Be creative with technology, but not too creative - Technology can be a great enabler, for example, Scrum.org is a big fan of online whiteboards for team collaboration. But when technology becomes more important than the actual work then it should be questioned. Online whiteboards, breakout rooms, real-time surveys, and other collaboration technologies are great for creating new and imaginative spaces for people to collaborate in, but they are tools and should be treated like that. The trick is to balance the skepticism of new ways of working for some people with the desire to try different approaches to encourage improved collaboration. 
  • Facilitation is a skill that should be learned, practiced, and improved. Have you ever been to a meeting that has an expert facilitator? It is amazing, you flow through the work, you have difficult but positive conservations and you get to the outcome. Facilitation is a skill that every Scrum Team member should have. Everyone, not just the Scrum Master. Yes, the Scrum Master may be an expert, but everyone should aspire to learn good facilitation skills. It is such an important topic it is covered in detail in the Scrum.org Professional Scrum competency model

The debates on remote work will never go away, but the reality for most knowledge workers is that you will be working with people in different locations, even if you are in the office. Be mindful of how you work, focus on providing an environment that is more supportive of delivering the outcomes you require, and never take anything for granted that a location or style will be more or less effective than another one.

Finally, here is my last word on the leaders that are pushing an agenda of office or out. It seems to counter the idea that they are leading organizations that are building world-class products, but the talent to build them needs to be in one location. It seems a little short-sighted.  Perhaps it highlights a lack of trust or an inability to measure what success looks like and support incremental progress toward that.  Of course, remote work requires mindfulness, but so does in-person work. Just because people are in the same office does not mean they are collaborating. Also the idea remote work is always worse is just plain wrong. Not only does this encourage and support a more diverse workforce, but also if done well provides a way to be more productive, more creative, and dare I say more collaborative. The trick is to do it well :-)