One of the benefits of working with a major federal agency is the ability to work with some of the brightest people throughout the United States. However, with an agile team, a ton of emphasis is placed on being in the same room. And trust me, I get the value of immediate feedback, team building, and the ability to truly know your co-workers. I also understand the futility of herding cats. You can, however, reap the benefits of co-location using the standard offering of modern office technologies.
Purpose of co-location
Co-location is about streamlining communication and building relationships. That is communication in close proximity and in person, and doing it frequently. When you can’t get that, do things that encourage frequent communication using the richest form of communication available.
In some ways, we are being pulled in both directions. While the federal government allows many to co-locate, many more for whatever reason cannot. And as far as I can see, co-locate in the federal government may just simply mean you are assigned the same work site, even though you aren’t sitting next to anyone you work with on a consistent basis. Further, the desire of the work force is to have more work life balance, which includes being able to telework. Telework, however, does not seem to be compatible with the agile ethos.
Email culture, Meeting culture, different time zones, regulation culture, lack of appropriate tools, etc all can lead one to think that a co-located team is a dream or only available to the best funded teams.
Practical things to try
When it comes to working in any bureaucracy like a government agency, you need to know your limits and pick your battles carefully. This principle often reminds me of the serenity prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
So I offer these techniques as something you can try when you recognize that there are things you can change and things you cannot. I recognized there was about next to nothing I could do to get my team in the same location. Here are some techniques that I tried and how they worked out for me.
Live Meeting for increased communication
If your grooming a backlog, or conducting an end of sprint review, using live meeting or a similar type tool can help everyone visualize what you are talking about.
Office tools that support instant messaging like Lync / Office communicator can help a developer who is having problems get hands on help from another developer.
Pick up the phone
Don't underestimate the power of communicating over the phone. Its technology that most (if not all) have available to them. Much easier to increase your communication value with voice as opposed to an email.
A great way to get to know people and read the nonverbal communication that you only get by seeing and hearing inflection in the voice of someone you talk to. Hopefully you have video capabilities on your laptop, if not try using available tools like facetime with an iphone or skype with other video capable devices
Addressing the problems head on with the lack of colocation needs to be done with your team. Training on group dynamics and communication techniques can be a great way to jumpstart your distributed team.
Keep Co-location in mind
When you are building your team, whether hiring or pulling it together from existing employees or contractors, think local. While the strategies here are helpful, always be mindful in person is best. Even if for one day a week.
Sync up schedules
If your teleworking employees and contractors are assigned to the same post of duty, ensure that they are in the office on the same days. Go a step further and have the synch up the hours they are in the office too.
Be creative with tech
I taught one of my teams to do planning poker over Instant Messaging. Other times I have used video to show a whiteboard in real time. Remember the goal is to get more vehicles for communication to the point its as if you were in person
Encourage team get togethers
Whether you can bring together your team for an in person sprint review, a weeklong strategy session, or simply having the sites your employees and contractors based out of go for a happy hour. You'll reap the benefits as your team comes together even when you are miles apart.
Get Collaboration Tools
Don't settle for excel based files, email, and /or sharepoint for sharing information. Get the tools you need to support collaboration. Tools like Slack or Yammer can help your team really collaborate. Start as soon as you can getting these tools available to your teams, in the federal government lead time on this things can be huge.