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Can a Scrum Master be an effective leader when working remotely?

Published on 11th May 2020

Published (and inspired) on Agile Connection by Mariya Breyter (Enterprise Agile Coach, Digital Transformation leader, professor, and speaker)

 

In sense of working remotely and role of a Scrum Master, there’s a dilemma: on one hand, one company has a flexible work policy that includes giving employees an opportunity to work from home, and on the other hand, most of our agile teams are primarily collocated, thus making the absence of a Scrum Master onsite noticeable.

Being remote makes osmotic communication impossible, which in turn means that your team ends up losing one of the primary benefits of co-location; Alistair Cockburn defines osmotic communication as “information that flows into the background hearing of members of the team so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis.”

 

What’s important to remember?

 

Although, we now have an arsenal of state-of-the-art remote communication tools, ranging from Adobe Connect, Zoom, and Skype (for smaller groups), that can help with a collocated team. Most of our dedicated Scrum rooms have large screens, so remote participants are fully incorporated in all team ceremonies. At the same time, the teams rely on the Scrum Master to update physical information radiators, start conference calls, set up equipment for demos, and many other things that are normally done on-site. This also brings up a point that maybe teams can become more independent rather than relying on their Scrum Masters for logistics.

When you have a functional manager in your company to approve or disapprove the ScrumMaster’s application for a so-called “flexible work arrangement,” and it is not an easy decision. Mariya as a functional manager wants to support Scrum Masters, so she posted this question and a simple poll on LinkedIn. The question was: Can a Scrum Master for a mostly collocated teamwork from home once a week, without any impact to the team?

 

What were the results?


Two days – Forty votes

  • Will have no or low impact—9 votes (22 percent)
  • Yes, it promotes team self-organization—12 votes (30 percent)
  • Sure, just make sure there are tools—10 votes (25 percent)
  • No, loss of productivity is possible—1 vote (2 percent)
  • No way, this is not good for the team—8 votes (20 percent)

 

Some supporters of the “remote Scrum Master” concept stated that they have been doing it for a long time – at least once a week – and felt that if the team was truly self-organized, this should present no issues at all. Negative opinions were very emotional. Some of them were purely theoretical; some were influenced by the respondents’ negative personal experience. The strongest opinion was the following: “I don’t think you should call it ‘Scrum Master’ and maybe you should ask: ‘Am I placing the ScrumMaster label on something else?’”

 

Others were telling their “stories,” such as this respondent:

“I was once placed in a position where I became ScrumMaster to an existing remote team in India, and it was a little short of disastrous! Believe it or not, even the poor quality of the phone connection for conference calls was a significant impediment. Overall, the entire arrangement degraded communication so much that in my opinion, the team was functioning poorly. I urged management to take steps to improve communication, but I was unsuccessful in removing most of the impediments I had identified. There was little I could do, and this situation partly contributed to my decision to take a position with another company.”

 

Some other factors to take into account when deciding whether the “remote Scrum Master” approach works for you, include:

 

Benefit


Having the Scrum Master working from home at least once a week is justified if it brings value. A Scrum Master may be able to concentrate on the tasks that do not require input from the team. It also promotes a sense of ownership within the team and encourages team members to resolve impediments. Even if there is a slight decrease in communication effectiveness, those benefits will justify a Scrum Master being remote.

Trust


The level of trust between a Scrum Master and the team is important. If the Scrum Master is remote and the team members are able to fulfill their commitments, continuously improve, and maintain the atmosphere of complete transparency and trust, it does not matter whether or not a Scrum Master is remote.

 

Maturity of the team


For a new team, being collocated and having an onsite Scrum Master is important. For a mature self-organizing team, the Scrum Master mainly deals with organizational impediments and does not have to be onsite. If the Scrum Master is constantly available to the team, it does not matter whether this ScrumMaster is onsite. The situation is different when the team is not collocated and everyone is remote. In this case, the concept of “remote ScrumMaster” is no longer applicable.

 

If the Scrum Master isn’t available to orchestrate product delivery, bridge any gaps, and remove any obstacles, a product will never be delivered – even worse, a wrong product will be delivered. In order to achieve this understanding, the Scrum Master must show value to the team as a natural leader, no matter if he is onsite or remote.

 

So, you might ask what ours and theirs favorite answer was. It was, of course, “Let the team decide.” The situation is rarely black and white and there are many circumstances we need to take into consideration when we think about introducing the Scrum Master role to a team. Doing Scrum just for the sake of it will not result in progress and it won’t lead to better efficiency. Carefully setting Scrum roles during working at home and having continuous investment in living and practicing Scrum values can make a world of difference though!

Tell us: does and how one Scrum Master can be an effective leader in any situation, especially working remotely?

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