4 Pro Tips from a Scrum Master Leading a High-Performing Distributed Team

June 16th, 2020

scrum master distributed team

Business leaders are waking up to the inevitable: remote work will define the next generation of 1099s and W2s. Companies that require employees to be in the office 24/7 will become the Blockbusters to a new wave of more innovative Netflixs.

While shifting to remote work means big changes for many, how does it influence industries that were already used to this reality? For some, working offsite means only nuanced changes. We’re talking about the programmers and engineers of the world who have already been working remotely for years.

Case in point: a longtime 10xer and engineering leader who has been working remotely for the better part of a decade. This specific 10xer is highly accomplished and commands contracting rates of $500-$1,000 per hour. Since this person works in a regulated industry, we are keeping their identity anonymous (from here on we’ll refer to them as “our client”).

No Stranger to Remote Work

Our client is no stranger to remote work – in fact, their view has long been that programming and developing are best done with extended periods of concentration. As they point out, the beauty with software development is that it can be done anywhere with basic equipment. Lots of professions don’t have that advantage.

It’s also worth noting that our client is not alone here. Entire well-run companies, like Github, have long practiced remote work for the entire organization. As an expert in this field, we asked our client to share some best practices for leaders managing distributed engineering teams. They were gracious enough to share a few, so let’s jump into it.

1. Assign story points with extra transparency and alignment

Typically in SCRUM, or in variations of the framework, teams work in 2 week sprints. Meetings may include one at the beginning of the sprint, where work is assigned out to individuals on the team, one on the second Monday to check in on progress, and one on the final Friday of the 2 week period to wind down.

When working rapidly and adopting a continuous deployment strategy, alignment is everything, especially at that first meeting of the sprint. Is the work too much for a 2-week sprint? Should work be redistributed to team members that have more time and experience?

Team members typically assign story points to work that moves from the backlog to their to-do list. Points are relatively arbitrary, but they allow stories and epics to be compared relative to one another in terms of difficulty and commitment.

To this end, our client offers a pro tip for engineering leaders using sprint planning. As the leader, assign your own story points before assigning work. Your understanding of your difficulty estimates (and your team’s ability) is of paramount importance – especially if it’s a new team, or a newly remote team.

This “calibration period” allows teams and leaders to compare notes at the end of the sprint. Fortunately for our client, their team is tearing through tickets and outperforming their estimates. They’ve had to scramble to pull work from the backlog to keep the team operating at full speed – certainly not the worst problem to have!

2. If a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, make it optional

A lot has been written in recent months about how and why remote teams should increase their cadence of communication. When everyone on the team is in isolation, a strong case can be made for the importance of checking in and connecting with one another more than usual.

But how does that look for a distributed team of engineers that is used to the remote world and works best in the flow state without distractions?

Our client’s strategy embraces a bespoke approach, which we strongly encourage at 10x. Their team lives by a simple principle: If a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, attendance is optional.

The reason for this rule is twofold. First, it mitigates wasted time. The last thing our client wants is for their team to hop into a Zoom meeting with little structure and relevance to various participants. 

And second, just as importantly, our client understands that everyone on the team is different and should be managed in a bespoke fashion. If you want or need casual check-ins unrelated to work, that’s totally understandable. If you’d rather keep your head down and continue working, that’s fair too.

3. Productively manage Zoom and Slack

Thousands of teams are using Zoom and Slack right now, and our client’s team is no exception. But there are ways to optimize the usefulness of these tools.

First, Zoom. The video conferencing tool is great because it’s quick and simple to use, whether in preparation or on the fly. When everyone on your team is actively typing away to discuss something, it often makes sense to change platforms and cut to the chase via Zoom.

Sometimes the simplest advice is the best: take notes during your Zoom calls! With live communication, always seek to document the subsequent action items that were discussed. Otherwise your Zoom calls will just slow down progress.

And now, in a similar vein of organization… Slack. The instant communication tool is great for getting productive conversations going. But once an important message scrolls off the screen and a few days pass, it can be near impossible to track it down. 

Our client uses a browser-independent bookmarking tool (i.e. Buku) to mark important messages in Slack. As the team leader, this is a crucial tool for keeping track of important work, ideas, tickets, and/or messages.

4. Treat security seriously

Business leaders in all industries should take security seriously as we embrace the shift to remote work. We’ve written about some standard security measures to consider during this time, and our client added to our list.

Their tip: Disable any SMS-based 2-factor authentication. Cybercriminals use a dangerous technique called SIM hijacking, in which they can take over your phone to access sensitive information. If any of your team’s apps use SMS-based 2FA, they could be at risk of exposing sensitive company information. Better to disable it whenever possible and make sure it doesn’t happen.

The Bigger Picture with Distributed Engineering Teams

As we hinted at in the intro, engineering teams around the globe were built for a remote world. To this extent, they are among the best equipped to handle the sweeping paradigm shift to remote work.

Of course, as new tools, security threats, and best practices emerge, even the best equipped must refine their skills. We’re proud to represent some of the best engineering contractors in the world – those who are earliest to new productivity hacks and most eager to constantly improve… anything it takes to build and ship the best products possible.