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I have been asked to interview for a Scrum Master position. The position is mostly remote, i.e. all people in the company generally work remotely and then meet up once every 2 weeks for Sprint Planning etc.

Is it realistically possible for a Scrum Master to be effective when working mostly remotely? What are the major differences in how he would approach the role, and how would he fill his days working totally remotely?

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There are two major impacts of a remote Scrum Master in my experience.

The first is that meetings like the retrospective and sprint planning are a real challenge. The biggest problems are usually with audio quality, particularly if using phone lines or teleconference hardware that mutes the end of the call that isn't talking. If you can get a top quality audio connection over IP and even better a video conference connection then that can mitigate a lot of the issues.

The second issue comes from the Scrum Master missing out on incidental conversations and situations. An example might be a stakeholder wonders over to the team and starts making demands about new requirements. If the Scrum Master is in the room they hear this and can step in.

Again, there are things you can do to mitigate this problem. Having a good persistent text chat facility helps, as does having a permanently on webcam so that you can see which members of the team are about and what they are up to.

You can fill your day in the same way an on-site Scrum Master can, but you need to be a lot more organised. For example, you can coach the Product Owner and stakeholders, but this is going to need to be at pre-arranged times over the phone or via computer audio/video conferencing.

Personally I think an on-site Scrum Master will always be better, but with careful mitigation you can reduce the impact of working remotely.

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    Would an on-site SM also be better if the development team itself is also working remote (and presumably dispersed over multiple locations)? – Bart van Ingen Schenau Aug 22 at 16:10
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    If the Product Owner and stakeholders are in the same office as the Scrum Master then that is a good thing, but perhaps not as significant as the Scrum Master being located in the same place as the development team. – Barnaby Golden Aug 22 at 20:08
  • If the team is also remote (per the question), how would a SM be missing out on incidental conversations? – vol7ron Aug 23 at 11:27
  • That's a valid point. I would say that a remote team and remote Scrum Master may well have fewer incidental conversations, which is a shame as these can be valuable to team. Chats on text or conversations on Skype, etc. can help to offset this loss, but nothing really beats the team sitting together and dropping in to casual conversations every now and then. – Barnaby Golden Aug 23 at 12:36
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The real question is, can the team work remotely. Of all the roles, the Scrum Master is not more or less dependent on good communication than the other roles. At least not if they work as a team. Sure, you can lock a developer in a room somewhere and they'll produce code, but that's not what a team is. Teamwork only works with all the people in the same room. That can be a real physical room or it can be a virtual meting space.

The real problem is that some teams (or mostly bosses really) think that "remote" can mean one person is remote. Or one role is remote. I have seen this fail every(!) single(!) time(!) they tried.

Teamwork is critical. I have seen teams work in the same physical room. I have seen teams work in the same virtual room. Every time a team tries to mix that up, let's say the developers work in the same room, but SM and PO are elsewhere, or even worse, 3 developers are local and another two are remote, that fails. You need to commit to one room and one room only, whether it's physical or virtual. As soon as there are sub-teams in sub-rooms, it kills teamwork. And without actual teamwork, the team is only a shell. It's Scrum in name only.

So to summarize, yes, a remote Scrum Master can work just fine, if everybody else it remote, too. If it's only you, or in general only parts of the team... run.

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Is it realistically possible? Yes, I’ve witnessed it happen on several occasions.

The other answers make a good point about challenging factors:

  • team work
  • communication
  • technology

An effective Scrum Master will need those things and also will need to know how to ask the right questions to get the right information out of the team. It’s an information game.

One of the most best tools you’ll need is some way of displaying your scrum or kanban board. Anything that might be physical on your wall or desk needs a nice visual and interactive version for the team - simple video does not work.

Video conferencing is perhaps the best because in communication in general because people often use non-verbal communication. Knowing someone might have something to say without them saying it is sometimes important. Knowing how something you say goes over sets your expectations and tells you if you were successful in delivering your message, if you need to spend more time to address confusion, or even if something wasn’t well received to prep you for follow up (perhaps 1-on-1).

On premises or remote, it’s important to note that perfection is not a reality. Each has its trade-offs, costs, and benefits. It is important to meet and know the team independent of where Scrum Mastering occurs :)

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