Coping with the “New Normal” as a Scrum Organization

Corona has turned our world on its head and changed many processes of agile software development. Especially our use of scrum, in which most of our teams rely on being able to meet physically, was put to the test. Ramon Salla Rovira, Agile Coach and Scrum Master for several teams developing Teampact, discusses what has changed for our scrum teams and the Scrum Master, how we’re dealing with the “new normal” of Corona and what we did to still be effective as a software development organization.

How has the role of the Scrum Master changed?
I don’t think our role has changed, in as much as Scrum Masters ares still responsible for helping the team feel well, develop and overcome impediments. However, Scrum Masters have had to adapt their methods of achieving this. When you work from home, you need to be even more aware of how the team interacts. This has become a big challenge because almost all the interactions we were able to have in the last months were reduced to a chat ora video call. Luckily, we’ve established a ‘camera on’ culture in our company long before Corona, so people are used to using video conferencing.

Despite this, depending on the communication tool or even the network connection of team members, it is very easy to miss the nuances of interaction.Therefore, being fully focused during the calls and listening to as well as watching your teammates is very important. There is an element of training involved in this, as conference calls are a very different medium than on-site meetings. As Scrum Masters, we had to learn what to look for. Having two screens is very helpful here, as you’re able to both present content and still see your team’s faces.

Also watch out for written chat messages. I’ve found that emojis can be false friends: just because your teammate adds a 😄 to her message does not necessarily reflect how her mood is. If you feel something’s up with her, call her rather than write.

Which ceremonies, tools and methods work remotely?
Continuing “traditions” despite Corona was very important for the teams I work with. These traditions, as I call them, are different from the scrum ceremonies and they differ from team to team. Some have a morning coffee together, right before the retro, others regularly meet for an after-work beer.Keeping this up digitally was a no-brainer and largely handled by the teams themselves. For example, one team fixed a coffee time after lunch and ensured everyone could take part by blocking their calendars for that slot. 

Another virtual meeting organized by the teams themselves is a weekly‘ fun meeting’ after work where the team members share experiences, play games, drink beers, basically any activity not necessarily related to work.

As for the scrum rituals: we kept all of them up and we don’t see areas on why we shouldn’t! Of course, not standing around the same table for the daily or not being able to gauge the physical reactions of colleagues is a challenge (especially for the Scrum Master), but those ceremonies are an essential part of our identity as teams and we coped well with moving them to being online. While I would not claim they became more effective, I feel being forced to do these rituals digitally forced us to be structured, which helped us to be efficient. Even if we can go back to the office now, we will continue to use the structures we implemented. For example, one team used OneNote for their retros. They gathered topics the individual members wanted to discuss beforehand and used those as a red line to move along during the retros. Adding to the topics beforehand is voluntary and teammates can of course still feel free to add topics during the retro.

We will also carry over the remote practice of being more mindful with speaking turns and ordered debates over a topic. Online, you simply can’t talk over or interrupt each other, information will get lost. This automatically leads to more structure, which we want to perpetuate. This is especially important now that some of us can go back to the office. We’ve had discussions with half the team being online, the other half in the office; for those present online, it was impossible to follow the discussion of the team in the office if two small groups talked amongst each other at the same time and we immediately implemented the rule that only one person at a time should speak, irrespective of being offline or online.

How do I get a 'feel' for my team(s) as a Scrum Master?
First of all, getting a good gut feeling of how teams are doing has become more exhausting! Trying to pay attention to everyone at once on a computer screen is challenging and quite tiring. To make up for anything I may have missed in other interactions, I take part in as many of their meetings as possible, even (or especially so) if I am not specifically needed in my role as Scrum Master. If I can join as a listener only and don’t have to contribute to the discussion, this gives me much more resources to observe my colleagues’ interactions.

In addition to the usual interactions, I have also started having bilateral meetings with my teammates. This enables us to fully focus on each other and I’m surprised how much personal topics can be addressed in even short meetings of 30 minutes. It is something that I will add to my bucket of approaches and will make use of selectively when and if I feel it to be beneficial for a team member.

Using our new software for team effectiveness, Haufe Teampact, gave the teams and myself an additional and very useful perspective on how the team is doing during each sprint. I take the insights Teampact provides into the retros and use them as the basis for our discussions. This means I have also created space during the retrospectives to have additional reflection time.

Has anything changed within the teams?
Regular human interactions are an integral part of our lives as emotional and rational beings and missing out on these in so many areas of life has affected the teams I work with. The online discussions are emotionally draining and physically tiring for them. The lack of coincidental discussions such as the office grapevine inhibits informal information.

The pandemic has taught us the importance of a constant and transparent communication. Everyone learned that information shared should be precise and clear to avoid noise and losses. The right tools to preserve those interactions are fortunately available on the market and to us in the company.

There are positive changes, too. I feel the teams have become more aware of the importance of organization and structure. Meetings both online and on-site run smoother now in comparison to a few months ago and as a ScrumMaster, I have to act as the “host” less frequently than before. And everyone in our company has come to understand that home office is not only possible but actually works, even when a majority of staff practices it. Corona has served to highlight the potential of a fully digital workplace.

The impact of Covid-19 on us as human beings and co-workers has been tremendous. It is therefore all the more impressive how quickly we have adapted to this ‘new normal’ of wearing masks, social distancing and working remotely much more frequently. As an organization, I am convinced we will come out of this situation stronger than before: more resilient, more courageous, more innovative. This is not only thanks to the technology and frameworks that support us but first and foremost thanks to our team members, Product Owners, ScrumMasters and everyone else in the organization that showed such flexibility and openness to adapt their own work with consideration for themselves and others.

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