Remote teams: Aligning with customers at a distance

By David Bernal

Before the present pandemic forced our hands, many organizations viewed anything less than fully colocated agile development teams as suboptimal. 

Now, there’s no choice. Remote and distributed project teams instantly became the new normal. This comes with new challenges for aligning with customers and with teammates. Get these right, and you’ll have a successful remote agile model for our social distancing age that bridges into the (hopefully) more normal future.

This post will focus on how to align remote agile teams with your customers.

Align with the customer and problem to solve

Before coalescing around problem solving, solution building and value delivery, a team must first align with the customer and the problem(s) they need to solve. They need an intimate understanding of both the solution vision and the solution’s value to the customer. To start down this path, build customer-centric activities into the distributed team’s sprint zero and make them a regular part of the team’s ongoing sprints. 

The project team should review personas and empathy maps with the product team in virtual working sessions, and discuss nuances that arise. If these artifacts don’t exist, have the product and development teams co-create them using a virtual whiteboarding tool like Miro.

Divide market research and product roadmap artifacts among developer pairs. Schedule time for the pairs to present the information, and the insights they gain from it, back to the full group. Capture any outstanding questions and post answers to Slack, Confluence or whatever shared workspace the team uses.

Shrink the physical distance

Establish a direct connection with the customer. Shrink the physical distance  and let the team engage with video conferencing go-sees, customer visits and gemba walks. This will help the project team engage with the customer, understand their work, hear their challenges and feel their pain. 

Technology can keep the project team close to the customer as they deliver work sprint-over-sprint. Screen sharing allows the team to see how users receive and use a new feature, and to understand where value is delivered and intent falls short. These regular interactions build empathy, which in turn fosters intrinsic motivation to build the best possible solution for the customer and end user.

Tools alone aren’t the answer

Many organizations focus on tools when building distributed teams. But, you can’t throw tools at a group of engineers and expect them to magically become an effective software development team any more than you can throw cleats and pads at them and expect them to become a successful football team. 

High-functioning teams realize their potential through alignment and culture. Physical distance makes this harder to develop. So, organizations must deliberately enable and nurture this alignment and culture for remote teams to succeed.

The second part of this series will focus on internal alignment for remote project teams.


David Bernal is vice president and managing director at Catalyte