Can a ScrumMaster Be an Effective Leader When Working Remotely?


Mariya Breyter explores the role of a ScrumMaster and whether or not one can work effectively when working remotely. If the ScrumMaster is not available to orchestrate product delivery, bridge any gaps, and remove any obstacles, a product will never be delivered—even worse, a wrong product will be delivered. In order to achieve this understanding, the ScrumMaster must show value to the team as a natural leader, no matter if he is onsite or remote.

As a functional manager to six ScrumMasters, I am facing a dilemma: on one hand, our company has a flexible work policy that includes giving employees an opportunity to work from home, and on the other hand, most of our agile teams are primarily collocated, thus making the absence of a ScrumMaster onsite noticeable.

Being remote makes osmotic communication impossible, which in turn means that your team ends up losing one of the primary benefits of co-location; Alistair Cockburn defines osmotic communication as “information that flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis.”

Although, we now have an arsenal of state-of-the-art remote communication tools, ranging from Adobe Connect to Google Hangouts, that can help with a collocated team. Most of our dedicated Scrum rooms have large screens, so remote participants are fully incorporated in all team ceremonies. At the same time, the teams rely on the ScrumMaster to update physical information radiators, start conference calls, set up equipment for demos, and many other things that are normally done on site. This also brings up a point that maybe teams can become more independent rather than relying on their ScrumMasters for logistics.

It is my responsibility as a functional manager to approve or disapprove the ScrumMaster’s application for a so-called “flexible work arrangement,” and it is not an easy decision. I want to support ScrumMasters, but I do not want their absence to hurt the team. What should I do? To find out, I posted this question and a simple poll on LinkedIn.

Initially, I hesitated because I was not sure if this is a problem for anyone else. Well it is, because I got such an overwhelming number of responses to my posting within two days that it made me “person of the week” within my group on LinkedIn. So, what do people think?

Here is the poll result:

Can a ScrumMaster for a mostly collocated team work from home once a week, without any impact to the team?
Two daysForty votes

  • Will have no or low impact—9 votes (22 percent)
  • Yes, it promotes team self-organization—12 votes (30 percent)
  • Sure, just make sure there are tools—10 votes (25 percent)
  • No, loss of productivity is possible—1 vote (2 percent)
  • No way, this is not good for the team—8 votes (20 percent)

Responses varied from statements like “If a ScrumMaster worked remotely even part-time do not call this person a ScrumMaster no matter how efficient she is” to “Wake up! This is the year 2012. Remote work is becoming a norm, so why would you question something that is an integral part of everyone’s life?”

Those who were in favor of a remote ScrumMaster concept had positive experience working remotely in different roles on agile teams. They stated that having proper technology in place was a prerequisite for working remotely, but once the tools are in place, there is no loss of value or time. One respondent even stated that while there may be some loss of communication effectiveness, there “Might be a real benefit from the ScrumMaster not being physically present, in that people would no longer be able to look at the ScrumMaster and report the status to him or her…This would reduce the ‘manager effect’ of the ScrumMaster being physically present and ‘running’ the meeting, and would therefore contribute to team self-organization.”

Some supporters of the “remote ScrumMaster” concept stated that they have been doing it for a long time—at least once a week—and felt that if the team was truly self-organized, this should present no issues at all.”

Negative opinions were very emotional. Some of them were purely theoretical; some were influenced by the respondents’ negative personal experience. The strongest opinion was the following: “I don't think you should call it ‘ScrumMaster’ and maybe you should ask: ‘Am I placing the ScrumMaster label on something else?’”

Others were telling their “stories,” such as this respondent:

“I was once placed in a position where I became ScrumMaster to an existing remote team in India, and it was little short of disastrous! Believe it or not, even the poor quality of the phone connection for conference calls was a significant impediment. Overall, the entire arrangement degraded communication so much that in my opinion, the team was functioning poorly. I urged management to take steps to improve communication, but I was unsuccessful in removing most of the impediments I had identified. There was little I could do, and this situation partly contributed to my decision to take a position with another company.”

Others talked about osmotic communication being lost and about not being able to read the audience to understand from non-verbal communication, where the blockers are. None of them tried to use advanced video tools, which provide panoramic coverage that can be easily compared with an onsite experience. Maybe it is just a matter of educating ourselves on all the tools available to create a positive onsite-like experience for remote employees; we need to make sure we combine them successfully in order to prevent a loss of efficiency and communication

Some other factors to take into account when deciding whether the “remote ScrumMaster” approach works for you, include:

Having the ScrumMaster working from home at least once a week is justified if it brings value. A ScrumMaster may be able to concentrate on the tasks that do not require input from the team. It also promotes a sense of ownership within the team and encourages team members to resolve impediments. Even if there is a slight decrease in communication effectiveness, those benefits will justify a ScrumMaster being remote.

The level of trust between a ScrumMaster and the team is important. If the ScrumMaster is remote and the team members are able to fulfill their commitments, continuously improve, and maintain the atmosphere of complete transparency and trust, it does not matter whether or not a ScrumMaster is remote.

Maturity of the team
For a new team, being collocated and having an onsite ScrumMaster is important. For a mature self-organizing team, the ScrumMaster mainly deals with organizational impediments and does not have to be onsite. If the ScrumMaster is constantly available to the team, it does not matter whether this ScrumMaster is onsite. The situation is different when the team is not collocated and everyone is remote. In this case, the concept of “remote ScrumMaster” is no longer applicable.

This conversation caused further discussions on related topics. One ScrumMaster said that he deliberately “started randomly showing up late, or being initially silent, for some of the meetings to see if the team understood that I was neither the coordinator nor Big Brother, and their success was really entirely up to them.” This suggestion was not supported by forum participants as promoting wrong behavior as one respondent said, “The team members are looking up to the ScrumMaster and I would not suggest a ScrumMaster showing behavior that they would not want team members to replicate.”

Finally, a commenter pointed out the following dilemma: “One of the hardest things for some people to accept as a ScrumMaster is that being a great ScrumMaster may make your role on the team less relevant.”

I personally encourage ScrumMasters who are reading this article not to worry about being expendable. Similar to a product owner, if a ScrumMaster is not around, team members will pick up immediate responsibilities. However, in the long run, a team’s productivity will be lost and product delivery will struggle. Having a great ScrumMaster creates a difference between success and failure. If the ScrumMaster is not available to orchestrate product delivery, bridge any gaps, and remove any obstacles, a product will never be delivered—even worse, a wrong product will be delivered. In order to achieve this understanding, the ScrumMaster must show value to the team as a natural leader, no matter if he is onsite or remote.

So, you might ask what my favorite answer was. It was, of course, “Let the team decide.”

User Comments

Chris Riesbeck's picture

It takes many iterations before students in my undergrad and masters university courses on agile development can reason through questions like this, exploring the options, pitfalls, unintended consequences, and appropriateness for the given team, project, and work environment. 

This discussion summary will be a great example to show them of how it's done. Thanks!

June 20, 2013 - 11:12am
Mariya Breyter's picture

Thank you, Chris. Appreciate your feedback. As always with knowledge work, there are so many aspects and details that have to be taken into consideration, and each case is unique and is based on organizational culture, tolerance to risk, ability to change and how this change is perceived, level of innovation and executive support related to innovators and change agents, and so much more. I am excited to hear that you teach students to analyze topics like this one.

Are there any other topics of interest to you? I've researched some other topics related to agile team environment and will be glad to share.

June 26, 2013 - 10:15am
Joel Bancroft-Connors's picture

Thank you for the excellent article. I really enjoyed the comment you got " “One of the hardest things for some people to accept as a ScrumMaster is that being a great ScrumMaster may make your role on the team less relevant.”

This resonates with my own beliefs on being a good scrum master or project manager (I've done both). I like to say "I spend every day, at work, trying to make myself obsolete." A scrum master is not a crutch, they are there to help the team grow. As a dad, I know that at a certain point, I have to let go of the back of my son's bicycle, or he will never learn to ride it. 

January 7, 2014 - 2:01pm

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