Has Remote Work Killed The Agile Team?
It has been more than six months since Covid-19 disrupted business as we know it. After the initial chaos, we are now learning to cope, and it is interesting to observe how organizations and the people behind them are working to fuel a functional economy. While there is continued uncertainty as to how long the pandemic will last, one thing is for certain: Many organizations are making long-term plans to design a future of work that focuses on a distributed, remote workforce.
Major organizations like Google, Facebook and Salesforce have all, in one form or another, announced plans to allow employees to work from home well into 2021. Twitter has gone even further and announced a permanent work-from-home policy that puts the decision to work at home or in the office in the hands of the individual employee.
While there is much to be said about the progressive and adaptive nature of these policies, one critical element that technology companies rely on is the Agile team structure, something that has traditionally assumed an in-person environment. So, has Covid-19 marked the end of an Agile workforce?
Agile In A Modern Age
In order to understand whether this marks the end of the Agile era, we need to look back on what sparked the Agile philosophy to begin with. Agile has existed in one form or another since the 1970s but truly came into its own in 2001 with the Agile Manifesto, a document created by 17 software developers outlining 12 guiding principles for an Agile workforce.
It was designed to make software development more iterative, collaborative and people-centric. A core tenet of this manifesto was that face-to-face meetings are the most efficient and effective format for project success. And so, tech companies adopted Agile en masse, and routine development became anchored in scrums, stand-ups, team meetings and brainstorms.
Obviously, our current situation has made it impossible for teams to collaborate in the style that Agile originally intended, and instead, we have been forced into an environment where we are reliant on digital tools to facilitate our daily interactions. This has posed a number of challenges, not necessarily because the technology isn’t adaptable to our needs, but because of the more esoteric problems associated with it.
“Zoom fatigue” has become a common term among organizations. It is very real and can cause significant complications among team members, specifically when it comes to forming social bonds. There is also a much more rigid and formal process for collaboration than before. Meetings need to be set, and teams need to actively plan to engage and discuss rather than spontaneous conversations that encourage the idea of informal brainstorming.
The Way Forward Is Challenging But Not Impossible
Fortunately, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. With a purposeful effort, teams can create a unified environment. Teams that have adapted well have utilized the traditional elements of an Agile environment and found adaptations within a digital framing, such as whiteboards and instant chat.
In fact, in a recent software developer survey, more than half of the software developers polled said they were happier working from home. Perhaps more importantly, over 40% of those same respondents said their teams were working at an increased velocity.
The key element here is to remain vigilant about maintaining the team communication. It is far too easy to allow direct personal communications to lapse in a digital environment. As we settle into the new normal, without careful consideration, we all have a tendency to find comfort in the isolation; this creates a scenario where we begin to fall prey to social awkwardness and disconnection.
Impersonal platforms like email, social media and texting do not adequately substitute for a personal connection. There needs to be a “social hygiene” check that is a required part of the day’s schedule. These check-ins can be used to get a sense of a team’s mood, psychology, connectedness, workload, personal challenges, etc. Make no mistake — the longer remote work exists, the harder this will be to keep together, so starting early and creating routine is important.
Another important element is training and development. New employees learn their roles “on the job” by observing others. Formal training can provide some benefit, but there is nothing like seeing a good role model. So, in the age of remote work, allowing new employees to shadow their more experienced colleagues online is another critical component of success in the new remote Agile world.
And while it can be harder to understand how teams are adapting to remote teamwork, data can help organizations better understand where their gaps are. Tracking elements like performance metrics and engagement before and after the remote switch will reveal which teams have adapted well and which ones need some additional coaching. Digging deeper into areas like organizational network analysis (ONA) will bring to light the bonds forming among team members regardless of organizational boundaries or reporting lines and who might be feeling left out of critical brainstorming, decision-making or even social conversations.
Ultimately, humans are incredibly adaptable to our circumstances. It’s what has helped us through eons of evolution. So will Agile disappear because of the challenges presented with a remote workforce? No, but it will evolve, with new practices to help guide teams through a blended work environment. What comes out of that won’t be the Agile we know today, but we might be better for it.
by John Schwarz
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