10 rules for Distributed Agile — How H&C gets stuff done

H&C has been working from home since before it became synonymous with flattening the curve. Many companies have previously allowed employees to work from home but the need for complex systems to be built by teams of people who don’t ever physically meet is a new challenge. Hopefully this account of how H&C does this will demonstrate that Distributed Agile is not only possible, but actually more efficient than co-located teams.

  • By Harry McCarney
  • 4 min read

H&C has been working from home since before it became synonymous with flattening the curve. Many companies have previously allowed employees to work from home but the need for complex systems to be built by teams of people who don’t ever physically meet is a new challenge. Hopefully this account of how H&C does this will demonstrate that Distributed Agile is not only possible, but actually more efficient than co-located teams.

How we got here

Initially, this way of working was driven by H&C’s need to hire top notch engineers. As our Berlin office filled, we realised we needed more space. At this time in Berlin there was also a large influx of venture capital into new startups which created huge competition for the best developers. In response to this we opened an office in Barcelona and began hiring developers, effectively splitting the product teams across two locations.

Unfortunately, we quickly realised that crucial communication gets lost in split location product and engineering teams. Subtle but critical decisions were made in the physical coffee meetings and subsequently lost in the sometimes chaotic video conferences between two packed and echoey meeting rooms. We began thinking there must be a better way.

We were also greatly influenced by this Joel Spolsky article. He argues that all developers and knowledge workers doing ‘System 2’ thinking, as defined by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, should have their own single person office. We realised we could address this, improve channels of communication, and access a wider pool of talent around the world by transferring everyone to home working.

10 rules for effective Distributed Agile working

From this point on we built the methodology and working practises necessary to make our distributed team exceptionally productive. This established H&C’s now industry-wide reputation for high-quality complex innovation at pace. Here are our top 10 rules of effective distributed agile working. They definitely work for us and I hope they are useful for you.

1. Take an all or nothing approach

Most of us have had the experience of joining a conference in which all the other participants are sitting in the room together. In these situations it is incredibly difficult to understand what is being agreed as the participants in the room are using communication styles suited to physical f2f meetings which do not transmit clearly over the wire to remote participants.

When everyone ‘dials in’ the communication style changes so that everyone can contribute. To enable this to work properly, H&C insisted early on that everyone should work from home. We’ve even recreated the same ‘working from home’ environment in our newly renovated UK office in order to preserve this high-resolution communication.

2. Distributed working does not equal flexitime

When people learn we are a distributed company, it’s often assumed that we work with flexitime. In fact, the opposite is true. Because we don’t share space it’s extra important that we share time. We start every day at 8am (yes, this means we don’t hire people with more than a three-hour time zone difference from the UK) with a check-in video conference with everyone in the company. We then split up into parallel conferences for each project.

Everyone is then available throughout the day via slack and spontaneous hangouts. Our projects require constant real time collaboration and working from home makes this easier due to our constant connectivity. Our teams are always ready to join face-to-face virtual meetings. Traditional offices often rely on emails which are slow and asynchronous and getting people to gather up their clobber and trundle along to a meeting room wastes more time. At H&C we work in true real time.

3. You can now hire the best

Perhaps the greatest advantage of distributed teams is the freedom to set very high standards for new recruits. Hiring talent across four time zones means access to a wide pool of the very best talent. For us, removing restrictions surrounding recruiting only from a small pool of scarce talent within commutable reach of the office has been hugely beneficial. Perhaps one good thing that will emerge from the current situation is that it will encourage traditional companies to adopt distributed working practices, and by extension give them the opportunity to hire world-class talent.

4. Always use a camera

Distributed working doesn’t work if people can’t see each other’s faces. The effectiveness of communication increases tenfold when people use cameras. Many companies are up to speed with Skype for business, but don’t use cameras. As a result, people struggle to clearly communicate on complex or sensitive topics.

5. Buy a top-quality microphone

It’s hard to overstate the importance of good quality audio equipment. If people are struggling to hear you, they will become tired and irritable and crucial information could be lost. I’d advise using our go-to solution, the Jabra Speak 510, which we buy for all new staff and freelancers. Invest in a headset and notice how much keener people are to talk to you.

6. Write a summary at the end of each day

At the end of each day, our staff send a short email to all members of their team. They include what they did that day, and what they hope to do the next day. This ensures everyone remains in sync. It also marks the end of the day, which is helpful psychologically and is similar to the effect of saying goodbye and leaving the office. It’s also useful preparation for team leads to prepare for the Stand-up meetings the following day.

7. Be spontaneous and hold micro meetings when you need them

Organising and holding traditional face-to-face meetings in a physical office space is a notorious time sink. From the availability of meeting rooms to ensuring everyone attends, meetings are difficult to keep under half an hour. In practice, we rarely find decisions can’t be made in less than 30 minutes and cutting out this whole process saves a vast amount of time.

In our distributed team, we hold many very short and spontaneous virtual meetings throughout the day. Each project or workstream has a dedicated slack channel with a static Google Meet URL pinned inside. A team member only needs to invite colleagues into the virtual meeting and the whole team can communicate face-to-face in seconds with no fuss. They can then return to their work equally seamlessly.

8. Write down action points in real time during the meeting

In a traditional physical meeting one person is asked to take minutes. They will generally do this on a pad or in their laptop and then circulate the meeting minutes via email after the meeting. This is a very leaky way to record agreements and often leads to misunderstandings and lack of follow through. Video conferencing enables you to share screens, even better share a google doc, which all the meeting attendees can edit and comment on during the meeting.

As the discussion proceeds, participants can see the consensus being recorded. Any concerns about phrasing, validity, edits and additions can be raised and sorted then. In this way the minutes are written and agreed as the meeting progresses. This enables a clear unambiguous conclusion and the possibility to begin implementing the agreed actions while the topic is still fresh and the team has momentum.

9. Always share your screen

It’s vital for distributed teams using video conferencing. Most meetings will focus on a document, whether that’s excel or a code file. To get the most out of the conversation, everyone needs to have eyes on the subject. A screen share is the easiest way to do this.

10. Remember that purpose creates trust.

Ultimately distributed working has worked very well for H&C because we created a common sense of purpose. The whole company is united in our desire to create the highest quality technology solutions for the most complex problems in manufacturing and industry. We do this by creating an environment that minimises obstructions to the engineers and product designers who produce the real value. This shared sense of purpose is what creates trust, which is the essential ingredient to making distributed work productive.

I hope this proves useful to organisations currently adapting to remote collaborative working. When COVID-19 is behind us, those organisations that embrace distributed working will come out stronger.