Remote Scrum teams: Four tips for setting team norms

Woman working in a home office, using an iMac

With many organizations adjusting to an increasingly remote work culture, defining certain day-to-day activities like meetings, tracking tasks, or ongoing project communication can be challenging. But team norms don’t need to be complicated just because you don’t share a space. Being a fully remote company ourselves since 2016, we have learned a lot over the years to keep our team running smoothly.

1. Find the right tools

First, you need the right tools — and perhaps a bit of training. Slack and Zoom (our preferred chat and video-conferencing providers) help make working remotely a breeze, but you need to make sure everyone knows how to use them. (People will lose engagement if they have to watch someone spend three minutes figuring out how to screen-share.) Spending some time upfront to get everyone set up properly will pay off in the long run. You might even consider a quick all-hands webinar to set shared norms and provide an overview of the tools. 

Once everyone is up to speed, these tools can really help make work visible without a lot of changes to your workflow. For example, if you were using Post-it notes on a whiteboard at your office to represent stories you were working on each sprint, you don’t necessarily have to change that. Your team might decide to circulate photos of the board or set up a webcam. Alternatively, you might implement a collaboration tool that mimics Post-its through a tool like Jira, Trello, or Basecamp. 

2. Communicate your team norms

Most teams at Alley have specific team norms, along with the widespread organizational norms we all embrace. For example, we prefer teammates are on camera for calls and join from a professionally appropriate environment. If you’re temporarily working out of an apartment bedroom, something as simple as setting up a screen behind you (or a virtual background) can help maintain appearances. We find keeping cameras on is especially important for companies that are fully remote. Seeing each other face-to-face helps build trust and connection. Of course, other organizations may decide to default to cameras-off to avoid distractions during presentations and recordings or make more space for multitasking. The right approach for you will likely depend on the type of work you do, team culture, and leadership.

Pro tip: Err on the side of overcommunication. Setting a company-wide team norm that clarifying questions are welcome is a great way to ensure your team feels safe and empowered to get the answers they need. 

3. Avoid ambiguity

Be on the lookout for vague expectations and messaging throughout your communications. (This is a good practice whether you’re remote or co-located.) Specifics help ensure your team is on the same page and communicating with a shared, defined language. For instance, if someone says, “I’ll have this done soon,” does that mean today, tomorrow, or next week? Setting norms that encourage everyone to commit to accountable timetables can help ensure quality across your work. Both the person making the request and the person taking on the task will benefit from a shared understanding of the commitment. 

4. Be intentional and consistent 

The transition from co-located to remote work shouldn’t require a complete overhaul of your norms. And while we’re generally advocates for experimentation, preserving and embracing the habits that make your team productive will help foster a smoother transition — especially in the early stages. Try not to overthink the shift to remote work or the “sacrifices” of in-person culture. Remote work can be incredibly collaborative, especially with fewer restrictions on scheduling. And you’ll likely find that you don’t need to stand around a physical water cooler to manufacture serendipity and foster creativity. Communication becomes much more intentional in a remote culture, so make space to come together for team-building and collaboration. 

To make the most of our work together, build camaraderie, and get things done, we routinely schedule swarm times throughout the week to talk on video calls or chat in Slack. These provide regular opportunities to share progress, bounce around ideas, and help unblock anyone who’s stuck on a problem. Zoom can also be great for pair programming, which we frequently employ to tackle complex problems together.

Embracing flexibility

Being a team is by no means dependent on sharing a physical space. In many ways, remote work brings us closer together, fostering a culture of respect for differing time zones, schedules, and work styles. We’ve found it incredibly important — and empowering — to assume positive intent among team members and client stakeholders. Assume people are working when they say they are, and ideally, establish norms for communication that allow for asynchronous responses between tasks. As more teams transition to remote work, promoting flexible work habits and cultivating a culture of kindness and psychological safety can greatly impact how your team navigates these changes. 

Looking for more ways to improve your practice? Learn how thinking like a remote team can benefit your organization.