Kanban for increasing remote teamwork

In this challenging new environment where so many people are working remotely, lean has a lot to offer.

Kanban for increasing remote teamwork
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com

In the office, it’s easy to keep busy. Between meetings, giving your teammates a helping hand, and impromptu assignments, we often struggle to get through the tasks that are really important. Now that we are confined at home and working remotely, we have fewer distractions, but we are also giving off fewer signals. Even with digital tools like Trello, Slack and Zoom, it is hard to tell who is busy and who isn’t, who is making good progress and who is stuck, and when it makes sense to intervene.

It is natural to wonder who is busy and who has free time to take on new work. A better question, however, is who is working on tasks that create value, and how they know what is important. This question is the same whether we work in the office or remotely. Being (and looking) busy is not the same as creating value, but we easily lose track of this in a buzzing office, which gives us a false sense of accomplishment. This is not the case when everyone is working remotely, as I have realized over the past couple of weeks. Several people have shared their frustration with not knowing who is doing what, what they should be working on, or how to get the help they need when they need it. Tough times, as well, for managers who have to keep the flow of work going without the usual daily interactions and visual cues.

More than ever, Kanban is vital to maintain productive teamwork and increase people’s motivation. Kanban provides:

  1. clarity of what the next important task is for everyone,
  2. a way to balance resources and workload to avoid over or under burden,
  3. fast support when someone struggles (a chain of help), and
  4. a method for encouraging people to propose improvement ideas

The last point is particularly critical now, to prevent confinement from turning into isolation. I’m already starting to see signs of this!

For example, one leader was concerned because his Trello board showed some people with very few assigned tasks, while others had too many. One teammate had just one ongoing task on Trello, and the leader feared that she was bored. But when we dug deeper, we realized that she had four major assignments, even though three were not on Trello. Inactivity was not this person’s problem, far from it. She kept switching from task to task, trying to satisfy everyone, and not finishing anyone. It didn’t take long to convince the leader to use kanban in this context of remote working. This readiness to try something new surprised me since I had been trying to get the leader to adopt kanban in the office for several months. And this is when it dawned on me: when everyone is in the office, we gain a false sense of productivity from our busyness and lose sight of value. Kanban keeps our eye on the next value-adding task, inside and outside the office.