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Remote Scrum Master – how not to let empathy fall by the wayside

Teams which members work remotely are “the new normal” nowadays and it didn’t start with the Covid pandemics, which forced a lot of us to work from home. Many teams already had members working from various places all over the globe. In Germany, team members also manage to work closely with each other even though they are physically separated.

Since the Covid pandemic started, home office (also known as remote work or teleworking) became an everyday reality for even more people. However, working from home poses special challenges for the cooperation of scrum team members, especially scrum masters. Because of physical distance, communication and interaction are subjected to a different framework since face-to-face contacts in the same room are not possible anymore. Even discussing past meetings with co-workers over a cup of coffee in the office kitchen is out of question. And such spontaneous chats in the kitchen are exactly the time when the scrum master gets his feedback on how the team is doing.

What is different about remote work?

When we are not working together from the same place, we need to rely heavily on media such as chats, video calls and e-mails. They limit our reception of the non-verbal signals such as body language and mood. Communication becomes less multilayered and it is more difficult to catch nuances during talks and discussions. Casually made comments can be taken the wrong way and lead to misunderstandings. In the remote setting it’s not possible to simply go over the colleague’s table and ask them to clarify what they said. Scrum masters, whose job relies on active listening and acute powers of observation, must think of new ways to keep up with the team and support it in the best way as a remote scrum master. Non-verbal communication is one of the channels which inform them on the current mood in the team.

What does a scrum master do exactly?

Scrum master’s tasks span from facilitation and obstacles removal to conflict mediation and consulting on the company internal design. It requires power of observation, the ability to listen, communicate in various contexts and empathy. Along openness and transparence, being observant and sensitive are especially important qualities. There are ways in which a scrum master can strengthen a remote team on a interpersonal level and fulfill his duties as a facilitator, coach and adviser. 

With these useful tips the social aspects of your scrum master duties won’t fall by the wayside:

  • There are several technical prerequisites to provide the best remote communication and collaboration. Provide the team with cameras in case their PCs or notebooks don’t have one.
  • Use platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom or Skype for video calls with your team. Video calls provide you with more information on gestures, facial expressions and your partner’s surroundings. Neither a phone call nor e-mails can transport this audiovisual aspect. You can get a better impression on your colleagues and their physical situation. Do they sit at the kitchen table smiling and get interrupted by their small kids from time to time or do they stare in the distance? All these information bring more social closeness in your scrum team no matter the geographic distance.
  • In the best-case scenario, your tool of choice provides you with the opportunity to chat with team members and send them pictures or emojis. You can exchange thoughts in real time and express yourselves comfortably. Emojis such as the smiley face help give a “human touch” to your conversations and bring people closer together.

There are even more tips on specific behavior during video calls, such as muting yourself when you are not talking. However, there are already numerous blog articles which summarize them and are easy to find online.

Back to the social and emotional aspects which a scrum master should consider while interacting with the scrum team:

  • It is helpful to create a nice atmosphere during virtual conversations. Talk about working and communicating remotely: sometimes sharing things via video may seem strange. Some people find it initially difficult to talk with the camera on; especially introverts may find it uncomfortable. Talking openly about the new situation and its effect on ourselves helps making it easier and get rid of misconceptions.
  • Start virtual meetings with small talk and personal topics, such as asking what people ate for lunch or discussing the latest episode of a popular series or sharing about the upcoming move to a new apartment.
  • Set up rules for virtual cooperation together with your team. It provides a clear framework and helps, particularly in the beginning, to provide an orientation point, for example on when you’re taking breaks and who in team is going to watch the time.
  • Take part in dailies which bring the entire team together and keep up with the current topics. Dailies help identify potential obstacles faster.
  • Introduce additional meetings such as an after-daily or a check-out in order to give the team time to further discuss particular topics relevant for the entire team
  • Participate more frequently in other team meetings, (like discussions on architecture, for example), to get a bigger picture on the everyday work and collaboration in your teams, which you could also support as a moderator.
  • Chat frequently with your colleagues and exchange with them on a regular basis.
  • Be creative while using emojis; you could use different types of smiley faces to vote on a new meeting type, etc.
  • Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with team colleagues as remote coffee dates. Drink a cup of coffee or tea together in front of the screen and discuss current issues or simply chat. Such meetings must be planned beforehand but when they start, they bring a lot of fun.
  • You can schedule a video call once a week for a group lunch. Maybe avoid talking about work and make a spontaneous conversation the focus.
  • Develop your remote moderation skills further. A tip for an interactive retrospective: try out tools like Mural, FunRetro, Miro or Retrium. They help support interactive cooperation in teams and intensify the exchange during the retro as well as in any other meeting.
  • Use the online version of the Kudo cards (http://kudobox.co/). You can give them away as a token of motivation and appreciation in the team. It can help boost the intrinsic motivation of the recipient.
  • Games can be hosted online as well. Organize an online game for the team to help people relax or explain a given agile principle (you can find tips here https://www.agileteams.de/plus/agile-games/).

Find whatever works the best for you and your remote scrum team, try things out, adapt and switch if necessary: each team works differently. No matter the Covid, remote work will become more and more popular, and it is up to us to shape virtual cooperation.

I’m looking forward to your feedback on which ideas you try out, how do they work out for you and what other tips you have.

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Written by

Christine Föhr