Hybrid Agility Challenges Part 2: Different timezones make things harder.

Last month at Code Mash, I spoke about making hybrid agility work. When I talk about hybrid agility, I do not mean agile-waterfall hybrid. I mean when some folks are on site and some folks aren’t or when a team is not collocated. This can include distributed teams, or teams that have the freedom to choose where and when they work.

A lot of the challenges listed by participants included timezones as a challenge. Multiple timezones, coordinating timezones, multiple hours of lunch time due to multiple timezones, and team members with 0 timezone overlap. Timezones do indeed make things more difficult, especially if you have a team that’s distributed all over the world.

Prior to the pandemic, it seemed that there were more agilists that favored collocation than remote or hybrid, but many began to challenge that idea after good experiences working remotely in 2020 and beyond. The one big thing we had going for us was that for most, it was one mode, remote. Things are always easier if everyone is connecting / working in the same mode, remote or on-site, but timezones make even single mode working like that a bit more challenging.

Add in hybrid working to the mix and things are more complicated still.

That’s always going to be challenging, unless you get really good at asynchronous communication and matching up/compromising timezone overlaps. Which is hard to do without just doing it over time and gaining the experience. I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but please don’t stop reading. You need working agreements.

This might feel like I’m lecturing you, but the practice of working agreements helps set up a protocol for how you work with your colleagues, not just for keeping things running well, but most importantly providing a tool and artifact that can be used when things aren’t running well.

Working agreements help the team help themselves – and are also really great for people who may have more differences than things in common (like timezones, extroversion vs introversion, cultures or backgrounds, for example).

The more differences between team members the more chance for conflict. This can be very healthy. You want conflict on the product you are building or the goal you are striving for because this helps innovate and create better outcomes. Different perspectives help you problem solve better. A lot of team conflict though, has more to do with expectations mismatch between colleagues, or assumptions made, communication missed, or things not working for someone or more than one someone.

It never ceases to amaze me when people come into a retrospective and dismiss an idea or make a suggestion to remove a way of running the retro that doesn’t factor in that everyone doesn’t think, nor prefer the same things as one individual person, or one homogenous group does. I’ve run a lot of retrospectives in my life and I am very mindful and deliberate about the format, agenda and how activities are executed in them. If I’m asking everyone to silently write, there’s a reason. Sure it might feel like speaking out loud is faster, but you never know who in the room isn’t sharing as much if you don’t try something like this. There might be someone in the room who doesn’t get as much airtime, or someone who is most comfortable expressing their thoughts in writing or someone who needs time to reflect in order to share what they have to say. There are so many reasons why silent writing might be selected as part of a retro.

Regardless of where this insight or request comes from though, when someone raises a challenge with the team’s way of working, there’s a great opportunity for the team to evolve and try something to help. A team member might speak up and say something like “Our team has more work than we can complete. When I don’t hear there is urgency on help that is requested, I think there is time for me to finish whatever I am doing, or I take my time responding. If you need something urgently, or with a time component, please tell me so I can respond accordingly.”

That’s one way to go about it… another way might be for that same team member to do some self reflection on what they themselves could do to find out whether there’s a time component by asking. Some of the most powerful moments in retrospectives that I’ve witnessed were less about other people, and more about self discovery. ‘I realize I’m bad at __ and I want to do better. Here’s what I’m thinking of trying.” Discussion around something that could work better, or something that a team member might be vulnerable enough to share about their weaknesses can generate ideas for a suitable agreement.

Using a working agreement your team might definite the overlap, or what you will do when there isn’t one. You might say for these kinds of communications use a tool that can be checked asynchronously, and for another, we need to coordinate to find a suitable meeting time, rotating the group or people having to sacrifice their bedtime or morning routine.

One participant at the conference shared an experience of asynchronous communication was discouraged in favor of meetings. That might be for a very specific reason or to address overuse of asynchronous communication, I suppose, but it seems pretty dangerous to me. Can you imagine if that team had zero timezone overlaps? Not to mention that asynchronous communication is well suited for certain kinds of information. Forcing a meeting might serve a good purpose for some things, but if you have to schedule a meeting to communicate, something may already suboptimal that’s unrelated to timezones.

I bet you’re wondering whether all of my responses to the challenges to working on a hybrid agile team are going to be solved with working agreements. They often can be- working agreements are an undervalued but powerful practice and artifact. They enable anyone on the team, regardless of power, authority of permission, to speak up when the team is being incongruent, or evolving the way of work without explicitly saying so. They are a tool for calling out a decision that we may be making implicitly in order for everyone to understand what just happened, or what is happening now.

Your team already has a working agreement- if not explicit, it’s implicit in everyone’s heads, and I can almost guarantee there’s something in your colleagues heads about the way your team works that they interpret differently than you do.

Working agreements feel awkward at first. They make some people uncomfortable because shouldn’t we all just be adults and professional? Again I’ll remind you, they are there not just for when things are fine and everyone is being their best professional self, but for when things are not fine. And no no, not everything I’m going to recommend is working agreement related. There’s other things you might try beyond working agreements.

Consider what kinds of team activities need synchronous collaboration/communication or collocation. Talk about, as a team, how you might make the most of these activities by coordinating an in-person, or specific type of meeting with higher engagement.

Borrowing from Seth Godin’s concept of avocado time- what time is most beneficial together? In the office, or at the same time in something like a hybrid meeting? Focus on making those a priority to use the high engagement practices like a synchronous call, meetings or in person working session.

Last thought for you… have you considered that facilitation needs to be different for hybrid? Because it does. If you’re struggling with timezones, you may not be facilitating with important considerations in mind (what do we do if someone isn’t being heard due to technical issues, how do we keep both modes engaged, how do we keep sound on-location clear for remote attendees, etc).

If this is outside your experience or skill, I highly recommending The Remote Facilitator’s Pocket Guide by Jay Allen-Morris and Kirsten Clacey – these authors do an excellent job summarizing why remote facilitation should be handled differently than in-person and how one might go about doing that. The techniques they explore work well for remote AND hybrid meetings, and are a great skill set to learn for a new and experienced agilists. If you have the in-person techniques down, you’ll still get some ideas for what remote needs in order to be engaged.

Not a team member but a team leader wondering how working agreements might help your team? The wise Johanna Rothman has some great words on this subject here.

Categorized as Agile

By carina

Amateur painter.