COVID-19 moved most project work to a 100% distributed working model overnight. That is, project teams that shared team rooms and physical space were suddenly working individually from a home office. Thus, all project work, with fixed deadlines and temporary team members, moved to a 100% distributed working model. I had the pleasure to work on one project using the scrum methodology before 100% distributed working model and to join a second non-agile project during 100% distributed working. Here are some background and my observations on the 100% distributed working.
Project 1: Running Project
The scrum project was composed of participants from multiple organizations: two located in the same country on one continent, a third in a different continent, and a fourth in multiple cities in a third continent. The project participants covered 11 time zones. The project observed the scrum rituals and used Jira and confluence: Before 100% distributed working, the meetings were co-located and with WebEx. With 100% distributed working, the substantive change was 100% WebEx meeting. The early days’ March and April were problematic because the network providers and WebEx were not prepared for the increase in volumes. That is, there were audio problems, inability to connect, and call dropouts. Once the providers caught up with demand, the processes ran smoothly. The benefit of a 100% WebEx meeting is each participant had an equal chance to be heard in the meeting. In meetings, where some people are in the conference room and other remote, there is an imbalance. That imbalance disappeared.
A new meeting was established with the management team for the product management to prioritize backlog epics before the backlog grooming meeting. Otherwise, there were no new meetings planned. Deadlines were kept. I would say it was business as usual.
I attribute the continuity to the fact that scrum was already an established practice; the organization already had the remote working infrastructure and distributed working culture.
Project 2: New Project Entry
I started the second project during the 100% distributed working period. The company (a different one from the first case) also had a remote working infrastructure, a project team from multiple organizational companies and suppliers. The project was following a traditional methodology with clear milestones.
One of the key challenges with entering a new project was learning the communication style and working behavior, and social attitudes of people. That is if you had no previous interactions with a person, how do you know if they are stressed, excited, happy, sad from their voice. How can you judge if they accept what you are saying or are skeptical? The lack of this behavioral experience with the individuals was a disadvantage. Meeting new people is difficult in every project, but increasingly challenging with 100% distributed working.
The second challenge was working your way into an already running project, understanding who the people are and what they are doing. For specific, task-oriented well-defined deliverables with dedicated individuals and an agreed deadline, getting engaged was manageable. Microsoft team’s session in the morning to agree on activities for the day, mid-day Microsoft Teams checkpoint, evening Microsoft Teams status and next steps. However, the intellectual activities that require conceptual work, trial and error, unclear division of tasks were more challenging. The working model was interactive: conceptual Microsoft teams, frequent exchanges of work products, pop-up (meet now) Microsoft Teams sessions.
The next challenge was deciding whether to have and to attend face-to-face meetings during the low period of the COVID-19 pandemic – September. Do you trust using public transportation, can you arrange a safe, sanitary working environment, do you indirectly force people–through peer pressure or their professional dedication—to attend?
The final challenge was caused by the inability to easily, dynamically collaborate, and interact. Working on hard conceptual topics requires being dynamic, having pop-up meetings, challenging each other face to face. Remotely, performing these activities is possible. However, it leads to a calendar full of back-to-back meetings, takes longer to problems solving, leads to meeting with too many people, increases stress levels, etc.
There were other processes to work through and the normal project issues rather than related specifically to the 100% distributed working. Nevertheless, the project met the milestone date and project objectives. In the end, people learned to work with each other, respect each other, have some fun.
Now that we are almost a year into the 100% distributed working, different challenges start to occur. People are tired of the isolation. So, we have to see how we go from here.