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Methodologies & Frameworks
How To Adapt Agile And Kanban For Remote Teams

Right now, businesses of all shapes and sizes are still adapting to the sudden need to embrace remote working. Some have taken to it with ease, while others continue to struggle. For those in the latter category, one of the big barriers to success is figuring out how to take what were well-oiled in-office teams and transition them to an all-remote setting with no drop-off in results or productivity.

As any experienced manager of remote teams can tell you, the solution lies in choosing an appropriate project management methodology and applying it in a way that works in an all-remote workflow.

And yes, I’m aware that’s not as simple and straightforward as it sounds. It does take some careful planning and a bit of forethought that some businesses may have skipped over in the rush to get up and running.

The first step in the process is to decide which project management style is most appropriate for the kind of work the team has to get done. Then, you need to adapt that method for a remote environment, adding digital tools to support the process if necessary.

In this guide, we’re going to discuss two of the most popular project management methodologies in use today. Then we’ll go over what kinds of projects they’re suited for, and how to make them work best for your remote teams. Let’s get started, shall we?

The Kanban Method

The first project management methodology we’re going to talk about is the Kanban method. The first thing to know about it is that it (and variations of it) have been in continuous use since the 1940s. It was originally created by Taiichi Ohno, an engineer working for Toyota back then. It turned out to be the secret weapon that turned the company into one of the world’s most profitable automakers.

The core principle of the Kanban method is simple. It is a hierarchical system that breaks projects down into sub-tasks, then orders them most efficiently to keep every team member working on moving some part of the project forward at all times.

It’s also a very flexible system that’s effective for all manner of projects. That’s part of the reason it’s been so popular for so long – it just works.

How Kanban Works

illustration of a kanban board with lists and cards

The Kanban method.

In essence, the Kanban method involves the use of three different organizational tools, which are:

  • Board – This is the top-level project organization chart. It’s a signboard (that’s what the Japanese word Kanban means, by the way) containing a list of all of the tasks involved in the project
  • List – The list is a component of the board that visually represents the phases of a project. Lists can be as simple as to-do, doing, and done. Or, they can be more detailed to handle tasks that require multiple steps to complete.
  • Card – Each card represents each task that makes up the total project. Cards move from list to list as work progresses, providing a simple, visual chart of where every detail of the project stands at a given moment.

The system is simple, elegant, and effective. All you have to do is carve your project up into appropriate sub-tasks, order them in a way that makes sense, and then get to work! And because this method is so widely used, there’s no shortage of examples to get you started.

Learn how to make the best use of Kanban for project management here.

Kanban For Remote Teams

Because the Kanban method is so simple, it lends itself quite well to remote workflows. And because it’s so flexible, it’s not a bad choice for almost any conceivable project. But when your whole team is working from home working from home, Kanban can fall apart if you fail to maintain proper oversight or grow lax in your communication habits.

So, for that reason, you’ll need a project management software package that supports the Kanban method and a digital communications platform to complement it. These days, Trello is the most used and most popular Kanban-compatible platform out there, and it works well for most projects. If you pair it with a collaboration tool like Slack, you should have everything you need to make the Kanban method work for your remote team.

Or, if you’re a fan of single-source solutions, there are some interesting Kanban integrations available for Slack that might let you use the single platform to handle everything. There are some tradeoffs, of course. You won’t get as rich a feature set by going this route, so you’ll want to make sure that your project doesn’t have any out-of-the-ordinary requirements before making any final decisions.

The Agile Method

If you’re unfamiliar with the Agile method (or any of the dozens of agile-like methodologies), you might be tempted to use it based on the name alone. After all, agility connotes swiftness, flexibility, and quick decision-making. And if that’s what you’re thinking – well, you’re right. That’s the Agile method in a nutshell.

But unlike the Kanban method, which is broadly applicable to almost any project you can think of, the Agile method isn’t such a good fit for quite a few workflow types. It’s meant for projects that need maximum adaptability and the ability to integrate changes at any phase of a project. For that reason, it’s common for software development teams to use the Agile method.

In principle, it’s kind of the polar opposite of the Kanban method. In an Agile workflow, all project goals are short-term. The idea is to break up your work in a way that gets from the first step to the last in a short time span. For that reason, it works very well for any kind of project where an iterative approach is the order of the day. Think things like product development and refinement.

How Agile Works

illustration of the agile method with user stories, sprints, stand-ups, backlog, and a board

The Agile method.

When putting the Agile method to work on a project, you need to begin in the planning stages. The key components involved are:

  • User Stories or Requirements – In short, this is a 10,000-foot view of the project that gives the team an idea of what the goals are and the purpose of the project.
  • Sprints – Sprints are the basic work unit of the Agile Method. Lasting between one and three weeks at most, sprints should take your project from a starting point to a minimum viable product (MVP) – in other words, a result substantial enough to show to whoever requested the project. In an Agile project, each new sprint should further refine the product or end result of your project.
  • Stand-Ups – These are daily, whole-team meetings intended to keep everyone up to speed on the progress during each sprint. It’s a chance for all involved to raise questions, highlight difficulties, or update everyone else about what they’re doing. They’re called stand-ups because attendees typically stand through the meeting as a way to make sure they’re quick and to-the-point. That means a maximum of ten minutes or so.
  • Backlog – This is a running list of changes and requests that fuel the goals of each successive sprint. If a stakeholder dreams up new project requirements along the way, this is where they go.
  • Agile Board – A simple project outline board that helps team members track the progress of the current sprint. Some companies even use stripped-down Kanban-style boards for this purpose.

As you can probably tell from the backlog component of an agile workflow, the big advantage here is that there’s a well-defined process to accommodate changing requirements. Rather than having some new directive blow up your project, though, your team gets to finish each sprint uninterrupted. The changes, once ranked by importance, then become a part of the next sprint.

Agile For Remote Teams

Of all of the popular project management methodologies in use today, Agile may be the hardest to apply to remote teams – except in very specific circumstances. As previously noted, it works well for software development, and online platforms like GitHub facilitate agile software projects for remote teams.

Speaking generally, Agile is easiest to adapt to remote work if you’re doing it with a team that’s already experienced with it and has used it while working in-office. But trying to get a remote team used to an Agile workflow when they’ve never done it before takes time, training, and patience.

In situations like those, remote Agile teams need a manager with a high degree of skill and experience in implementing the workflow who can spot deficiencies in the team before they can cause havoc.

The good news is that managers can get online training that can help them to master the Agile process to get equipped to lead an all-remote Agile team. And because skilled Agile managers are so in demand these days, many management degree programs also include components covering the Agile method, making them an attractive option that can also advance the manager’s career.

Going as far as working to obtain a Master’s degree in management is a great choice for Agile managers for other reasons, too. That’s because it helps them build essential leadership, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills.

When leading an Agile team in an all-remote environment, all three are required to keep projects moving without unnecessary roadblocks to success. In other words, keeping the remote team together, happy, and unobstructed is the manager’s main role in the process.

And even the basic training isn’t enough. What’s most important to take into account when you use the Agile method with an all-remote team is that you have to build in significant knowledge overlaps to ensure continuity.

At the breakneck speed Agile projects rely on, having a single team member call in sick can bring work screeching to a halt unless there’s always another team member with the skills and knowledge available to pick up the slack.

And just as was the case with the Kanban method, project management with Agile requires clear and constant communication among teams. Besides encouraging constant team communication throughout the day, remote Agile projects work best when you also have every team member:

  • Post their project progress at the end of every day using whatever collaboration tool the team relies on (once again, Slack is a go-to solution here).
  • Provide a rundown of what they expect to accomplish the following day.
  • List any significant problems they’ve encountered and tag any team members whose assistance they might require.

Having this information available to all makes it possible for each team member to plan their next steps in an efficient way. There’s a great deal of autonomy associated with using the Agile method, so it’s crucial to make sure everyone has all of the information they need to proceed without surprises. Plus, having everyone post updates in this manner speeds up stand-ups because most of the long-winded explanations will already be available for all to see each morning.

The good news is that the Agile method is popular enough that there are a wide variety of digital tools designed to support its use among remote teams. But be careful. Don’t try and shoehorn a project into the Agile method if it’s not a good fit. If your project has lots of long-term goals and can’t be broken down sufficiently, don’t even try.

Remote-Specific Agile Tips

Since the Agile method is so challenging for teams to pick up when they’re already working remotely, it can help to apply some remote-specific Agile tips to ease their transition to using the method. Some of them can serve as a form of training wheels while the team gets up to speed, while others might make sense to incorporate as a permanent part of the team’s workflow.

Here are a few of the most useful tips:

  • Don’t Skip Documentation – Although the goal of the Agile method is to prioritize the completion of each sprint above all else, it’s often a good idea to take your first few projects a little slower. And with the extra time, have each team member document their process and the work they’ve completed. Then reserve some time at the end of each sprint to review what went well and what didn’t. This will help the team identify what might be holding them back from peak efficiency. Once everyone’s up to speed, you can do away with the documentation stage.
  • Choose Multiformat Communications Tools – Because quick and clear communications are key to making Agile work, special attention to the topic is required for remote teams. The idea is to try and replicate in-office communications by using tools that offer communications escalation. That means using a platform that can handle:
    • One-to-one text chat
    • One-to-many text chat
    • Voice communications
    • Video communications
    • Shared whiteboard functionality
  • In that way, team members can choose the quickest communication method to suit their needs but have the option of escalating up to more involved methods when necessary. And having all options available within the same platform eliminates the friction of moving between those methods.
  • Devote Extra Time to Planning Stages – When using the Agile method under normal circumstances, teams tend to create only barebones plans before beginning work. That’s because it’s simple to reconvene and brainstorm when everyone’s working side-by-side. But in a remote setting, taking the time to go into fine detail in your project planning stages can save headaches later on. In other words, trying to answer as many questions about the work up-front is a must for remote Agile teams.
  • Discourage Invisible Work – In an office setting, it’s common for Agile teams to take on small tasks without assigning a card to them on the Agile board. This is because they can count on other team members to see and acknowledge their work without taking the time to document it. In a remote setting, that’s not possible. For that reason, it’s essential to insist that no team member do any task without creating an entry for it on the Agile board. This will eliminate duplicative work and increase team transparency.

Making The Right Decision

Although there are no hard and fast rules you can use to choose a project management methodology for your remote team, making the decision isn’t as hard as you might think. You can start by thinking of the two methods discussed here as equidistant points on the style spectrum.

At one end, you have the simple, hierarchical Kanban method that breaks up project tasks to keep every team member moving a part of the project forward at all times. It’s straightforward, precise, and a snap to implement – and that makes it one of the easiest project management methodologies to adapt for remote teams.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Agile method. It’s quick, change-resilient, and iterative. If you have a project with a high likelihood of mid-stream requirement additions, subtractions, or any other disruption – Agile’s a great way to be ready for them. But with speed comes the risk of losing cohesion with your remote team, so you’ll have to make significant efforts to keep everyone on the same page.

And because the Agile method takes a great deal of management skill to keep teams working at peak efficiency, it’s something that you need to take plenty of time to prepare for before trying to put it into regular use.

So, I’d say unless you have a pretty good reason to use the Agile method, it’s best to avoid it until there’s either a specific need for it or you’ve done the appropriate training and legwork to get it right. Besides, Kanban is a good all-purpose choice for the vast majority of project types anyway. And that goes double for teams working remotely.

But if you have trouble making up your mind, consider this: you can also opt to use a hybrid approach. For example, there’s nothing stopping you from turning each of your Kanban cards into an Agile sprint or using some of the widely-available Kanban tools to manage your Agile board or to break up each sprint’s tasks into more manageable chunks.

In fact, doing so can help you exploit the best features of each to get the most out of your remote team. Just remember, when planning your project, make it clear to every team member what’s expected of them and how you want them to work. It’ll save you some potential confusion and headaches later on.

Now get out there and put your project management methodology of choice to work! Read more about best practices for remote project management.

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By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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