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PHOTO: Paige Cody

Once the exception rather than the rule, marketing teams working on a completely remote basis are now not only ubiquitous, they’re looking more and more permanent. Google’s recent announcement (no doubt the first of many) that all its 200,000 employees would be fully remote until at least July 2021 has many leaders looking at their remote teams with a new perspective.

We’re swiftly moving beyond "just getting by" as remote teams. The time has come to maximize the effectiveness of distributed marketing teams.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to deliberately transition your remote team(s) into Agile teams. That might sound daunting in the face of all the other changes swirling around, but when done right the transformation can be painless and, dare I say, enjoyable.

Run a Retrospective on Your Remote Marketing Process

Before we can make effective changes, we need to understand the existing gaps in the way a team works. And this needs to be a holistic, comprehensive understanding, not something inferred from an outside perspective.

Fortunately, Agile frameworks have this kind of session built in. Your first step in going Agile will be to use the Agile meeting known as a retrospective.

In Agile retrospectives (affectionately called retros), we only talk about the process. This isn’t the time to debate why a campaign didn’t meet its targets or whether someone really messed up their piece of a project. Retros are all about the way we work, not the work we do.

You could just bring the team together and ask for input into how things get done, but retros go better when they have a framework to guide discussion. For this kickoff retro, my recommended format is to create four categories in some kind of shared editable document:

  • Like: What have they liked about the way things get done? What’s working well?
  • Lack: What have they discovered is missing? What do they wish was there that’s missing?
  • Learned: What lessons have they learned since going remote? These could be good or bad.
  • Longed for: What do they miss? Maybe it’s team happy hour or just idle chit chat in the hallway.

Ask the team to think back over the months they’ve worked remotely, and put things into each category. Let everyone do this individually and silently, either at the start of the retro or prior to the meeting. 

Once everyone’s given their input, give the opportunity for people to ask questions about unclear items. Group like items together to help identify themes.

Related Article: Marketing in a Crisis, One Month Later

Identify the Biggest Issues, and Map Agile Solutions

Once you’ve seen the commonalities among the team’s input, create a list of the biggest problems. Some common ones you might see include:

  • Communication: The team can’t reach one another, and/or their stakeholders, to get feedback when needed.
  • Visibility: Nobody knows what others are working on. This might apply within the team or for other groups the team interacts with.
  • Prioritization: Everything is a priority, which means nothing is. It’s tough to know what to work on next.
  • Reactivity: The rate of change is too fast. The team spends too much time responding and not enough time looking ahead.

You may have others, but these are common themes among teams I’ve worked with. Whatever you see, spend the second half of your retro coming up with Agile solutions to the key challenges. For instance:

  • Communication → Daily standups to create faster feedback loops
  • Visibility → An Agile project management tool to show how people are spending their time
  • Prioritization → A ruthlessly prioritized backlog with a core owner who puts the priority work at the top
  • Reactivity → Short, 1-2 week iterations or sprints that allow for focus

Begin by implementing a few practices that will help tackle the most painful issues identified during the retro.

Related Article: How Agile Marketing Leaders Handle Crisis

Resist the Urge to Go for Tools First

It’ll be tempting to go out and grab some digital tools to help solve each and every problem the team raises, but resist the urge. If you can get started with some basic practices and see how the team makes use of them, you’ll be much more likely to buy the right solution the first time.

I strongly suggest something super simple like Trello to begin with (here’s a public board you can copy). See how it works, what you wish it had, what functionality the team uses the most, etc. Then spend time in a future retro discussing what’s needed in the team’s permanent tool.

Maybe you stick with Trello, maybe you need something fancier, and maybe you end up needing to connect with the tool of choice for your organization. But whatever the final outcome, you’ll be better prepared if you do the simplest thing first.

In pre-lockdown days I always recommended that teams use sticky notes on a wall first, but that’s not really a possibility now. Get as close to that as you can, and iterate from there.

Related Article: What Are the Bare Necessities of a Remote Marketing Team?

But Do Get the Team the Tool(s) They Need

The other side of that coin, however, is to make sure you have the ability to get the team the tools they identify as real needs. Begin allocating budget now, so when they’re ready to pull the trigger they have the backing they need.

At the core of the Agile team should be an effective workflow visualization tool (e.g. Trello, Planview, Monday, CoSchedule). Get that first, but be prepared for additional asks from the team.

If they’re creative, they may want a more robust way to collaborate in real time (Figma, Miro, Mural). If they struggle with technological hurdles to communication, they may ask for better video conferencing or instant messaging apps.

Whatever they need, be ready to provide it. There’s nothing more frustrating than taking the time to make a carefully thought out recommendation that never gets acted on.

Run Another Retrospective (and Another, and Another)

After you’ve implemented a few simple improvements, run another retro with the team. Take their temperature again, and see what the next steps should be. Agile is all about continuous improvement, so be sure everyone knows the process won’t be perfect overnight.

Ideally, a new Agile team should have a retrospective every two weeks, so don’t get lax about this meeting. After each one, create a concrete list of improvements and work through them systematically so Agile becomes more and more effective over time.

Last, but certainly not least, make sure you’re using the Agile practices to build up an Agile mindset. Encourage experimentation, iteration and the test-and-learn mentality that will make all your work more agile and more effective.

The most high performing teams marry the Agile mindset with its practices to become both efficient and effective. There’s no reason your newly remote team can’t do the same.