Locked out of the Scrum room

Because of concern over a widespread outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), many companies, including Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google, have asked their team members to work from home. Many smaller companies have done the same, and as the virus takes root in more American cities, it appears that more organizations will follow. Several large conferences have been canceled, like SXSW, or changed to online events, like Adobe Summit 2020. The remote work industry has seized the moment for marketing, publicity, and growth. We at Alley don’t want to grow our business on fear, uncertainty, or doubt, but we do want to help other Scrum practitioners through a temporary transition to working from home.

One of the main topics on Twitter to describe this phenomenon is #SuddenlyRemote. I don’t really think we should classify businesses whose teams are temporarily asked to work from home as “suddenly remote” any more than Alley was “suddenly co-located” when we went on our company retreat in January. Successful remote companies are marked by one primary thing: intentionality. Building a highly enjoyable and successful remote culture is possible, but seems unlikely to happen overnight in an organization that crashed into it by circumstances out of their control.

“Unexpectedly locked out of the office” is probably more accurate than “suddenly remote” to describe the situation many organizations currently face. Alley’s been remote from the beginning, in 2010, but until 2017 we also kept a physical office in Manhattan. We were unexpectedly out of that office for about a week when Hurricane Sandy caused widespread power outages and other damage in Manhattan, so we stayed home and collaborated using email and IRC. That experience, among others, was an important factor in Alley’s decision to become fully remote, but it took another five years for us to give up our main office. Any organization kept home by COVID-19 ought to temper their expectations as to what they’ll get out of these weeks of working from home.

The recipe for remote success is short, but not simple:

  1. Basic technology support for collaboration and frictionless but secure access to important resources, which is a necessary condition for…
  2. A culture of trust, inclusion, and making work visible, which is a necessary condition for…
  3. Intentional transparency and vulnerability on the part of leaders and team members alike.

The technology infrastructure can be built, but the culture must be grown. Transparency and vulnerability look very different in an office than they do when working remotely. In the office, body language helps us understand each other, and being at your desk indicates presence, if not necessarily focus. In a remote company, team members must announce their presence and their plans and articulate their emotions in order for their colleagues to empathize. We have found that our earnest and holistic implementation of Scrum has created practices that enable transparency and vulnerability.

Bear in mind that “remote work” does not always mean “working from home.” Many companies that are fully remote are renting coworking spaces for their team members who live in dense urban areas. These situations pose different challenges to productivity. Some of us at Alley may need to adjust to working at home in cramped apartments without our external monitors and the bottomless urn of hot coffee.

Agile organizations that have the technology basics in place or that support team members working from home or occasionally on the road can likely successfully navigate this period by reviewing some basic practices and making temporary tweaks that will allow their teams to stay focused and functional. The organizations we see as most likely to have tough problems are SMBs that rarely or never allow employees to work from home and lack the infrastructure to make a quick change. Nonprofit organizations are also especially vulnerable because few have made a broad transition to flexible work policies and concomitant investment in technologies that enable flexible work.

Here’s our advice for taking your Agile practice remote, which we’ll unpack over the course of this next week.

  • Resist new collaboration tools or at least examine them carefully. At Alley, we communicate with Slack and Zoom. You might have these already, even though you’re not in a remote company. If you don’t, we suggest you add a video conferencing system first (Zoom is free with some basic restrictions) and then decide whether or not to add text chat.
  • If you use a physical Scrum board and backlog with sticky notes (we’re jealous!) don’t jump into a software solution just yet. We know of Scrum Masters who take photos of the Scrum board to circulate among traveling or remote team members. Any software system will take time to configure and will impose its own assumptions on your agile practice.
  • Day one of remote work is definitely an interruption. Your team should gather, ideally via video, to review your norms and think through any that need to be added temporarily. And you should commit to a routine review of your norms for as long as you’re out of the office.
  • Review the current Sprint and identify what’s newly blocked by not being in the office. Review other ways that things have changed, for example, if parents need to take time away to look after children who are home from school. Don’t be afraid to end your Sprint and start a new one. The Emergency Procedure Scrum Pattern might help.
  • Make time to catch up with your teammates casually, just as you would do in the office. Many Alley meetings start with several minutes of casual banter, and we are 100% fine with that.

With focus, determination, and consideration, your team can make it through this disruption.


This is the first of a five-part series, Locked out of the Scrum Room, on taking your Agile practice remote:

Because we are a remote company and an agile organization that generally follows Scrum Inc’s Scrum at Scale program, we think we could be useful to other agile organizations that are finding themselves temporarily working from home during this challenging time. We’re happy to answer questions and provide guidance and assistance as we are able.

We are also devoting pro bono time to assisting nonprofit organizations in this transition, whether they use Scrum or not.

Let us know if we can help, or check out our e-book on remote work.