One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto emphasizes the importance of co-located teams collaborating actively. Collaboration is still as valuable as ever but 2020 is forcing us to revisit how to achieve the benefits of co-location without the co-location. The good news is that much has changed since the Manifesto was written which has created some answers to how to enable the benefits of being Agile. Here’s what you can do to allow Agile to Thrive in a Virtual Environment.
by Bryan Campbell and Bhavik Modi
Flashback to our digital lives in 2001 – Netflix was still mailing DvDs, Google was just getting started and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist. At the same time, only 50% of people in the United States had cell phones and the iPhone was 6 years away. It was during these times that 17 software developers came together in Snowbird, Utah and created what they called the Agile Manifesto, a set of values and principles that would drive a revolution in how organizations and teams worked together to deliver business solutions.
Since the advent of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, practitioners have emphasized the importance of teams working together, side-by-side delivering valuable products for their customers. This is typically referred to as co-location and the benefits of teams working in the same location are numerous, from developing trust as they learn more about each other, to learning from “osmosis” as they hear colleagues collaborating to seeing shared goals and progress metrics through highly visible information radiators.
Collaboration is still as valuable as ever but 2020 is forcing us to revisit how to achieve the benefits of co-location without the co-location. The good news is that much has changed since the Manifesto was written which has created some answers to how to enable the benefits of being Agile. Here’s what you can do to allow Agile to Thrive in a Virtual Environment.
How to Enable Virtual Co-Located Teams
The first value of the Agile Manifesto states “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools”, however, remote Agile teams are going to need effective technology or tools to emulate a co-located experience. Fortunately, technology and accessibility have improved significantly since the Agile Manifesto was developed and a number of options available today are free or low cost. As a leader, it is important to check to ensure that your team has access to core enabling tools to facilitate work management, brainstorming and ideation.
It’s likely your team interactions in a virtual environment are going to need some enhancements particularly during this extended time of remote work. Here are some areas that you should focus on and some starting technologies to consider:
Clickable Links at end of article
Create Your Agile Working Agreements
As teams shift to remote work, team members and companies will need to reconsider many of their working agreements. Team members will need to discuss how they want to engage using Zoom and other tools including what their expectations are in regards to responding to messages and video conferences. This might mean considering whether to invest in high speed internet, efficient and ergonomically appropriate work spaces and considering how to minimize distractions (including your chatty Macaw) from affecting your productivity. It might also be necessary to create some working agreements in your household on how to manage noise levels and interruptions and possibly some personal working agreements on stretching and the frequency of your visits to the pantry. Companies should reconsider how to their onsite gyms and offer memberships to Peloton or Steezy, instead of onsite cafeterias look to DoorDash or UberEats and start tracking the benefits to the environment of not having your employees driving to work.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
Agile also emphasizes creating a work environment that included having fun as a way to keep teams engaged. Ice cream retrospectives, jigsaw puzzle areas and plushy talking sticks are signals that this is an Agile team, so how do you insert fun into a virtual team setting? Once again there are some interesting options that have emerged that teams can consider. Try using one of the Jackbox.tv games that are easy to learn, team-oriented games accessible from phones, tablets and computers. Consider a virtual happy hour with the team and encourage everyone to share what they brought to the party. Another idea is a multi-player jigsaw game or maybe even create a Guild in an online game like World of Warcraft. You can even invite a llama to a team meeting through Goat-to-Meeting and support a community farm. Encourage the team to offer their own ideas too.
Three Moves You Can Make Tomorrow
It’s time to accept that Agile can and will work in a virtually distributed environment, so now you need to decide how to get the most out of it.
- Create Your Agile Technology Stack: Start with engaging your team and check to see if they have all the tools necessary to work effectively remotely.
- Enable Your Team’s Working Agreements: Create Working agreements with the team on how to engage with these tools and expectations on when and how frequently they should be used. Also teams need to check how they are setup in their home both from a technology and an ergonomics perspective. Small investments in keyboards, chairs and lighting can have big returns in productivity for companies and ergonomics for people.
- Lastly and most importantly Don’t Forget the Fun!
Team Enablement Area
Tools allow for better communication, visibility and progress
Daily Stand-ups and Team Communication
Tools promote asynchronous collaboration and ad-hoc interaction
Reviews and Demos
Tools showcase working products – allowing customers to “see” the solution and experience it to provide feedback
Tools encourage a safe environment to reflect, learn and improve
Thriving in a Time of Continual Crisis
The screen unfolds to images of the world reeling from a global airborne virus, Russia and the Middle East are locked in a no-blink oil price war and the most stable countries in the world are roiled by social unrest and riots. This isn’t the start of a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the beginning of 2020. To describe this as “living in interesting times” would be an understatement and none of these events were anticipated by any of the leading forecasters. In fact, Deutsche Bank recently released a report that estimates a 33% chance of a global disaster larger than Covid-19 occurring in the next decade. It illustrates that these crises not only can’t be forecast but that we are moving into an age of continual crisis (the Australian and Brazil fires, Brexit and the Hong Kong protests already feel like distant memories).
However, the progressive advancement of technology, has created a new way for organizations to create the resilience they need to adapt to this business reality. Much has been said about individual resilience but organizations need to build their own muscles for resilience as they go through change. Instead of reacting to disruptions by shifting people and functions into a remote delivery model, it’s time for organizations to take a Remote First approach and re-create themselves to operate as an efficient, disruption-proof organization. Remote first not only creates a responsive, adaptive means to respond to crisis it also drives down costs, increases talent reach and helps improve the environment.
The Time is Now
One of the most significant changes for millions of people in 2020 has been the shift to working remotely. Countless articles, blogs, and videos have emerged chronicling the change from driving to the office to joining Zoom meetings in your living room. Remote working has helped organizations reduce costs, improve the environment and increase employee morale and yet none of this is particularly new. Technology and infrastructure shifted seamlessly into this new model and validated the push to cloud-based products and investments in network security (Zoom was able to respond to the rapid increase in demand through their use of Amazon and Oracle Cloud services). The good news is that the time is ripe for this, 96% of all Americans have a cell phone and 79% have home broadband services and almost every major software solution has a cloud based, subscription offering. Worker attitudes towards remote work have shifted significantly with 99% expressing an interest in working remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their career. With these forces all converging, first mover organizations have an opportunity to leverage these trends to their competitive advantage.
The Benefits Are Real
Creating a Remote First organization unlocks powerful competitive advantages for companies that rapidly adopt this approach. Corporate offices served an important function when communication was primarily limited to face-to-face interactions but it also limited the ability of companies to hire talent outside the commuting distance of their office. With a Remote First strategy organizations can now attract talent anywhere in the world and there is little doubt that these are an organization’s most valuable asset. Having the ability to access talent outside of a 50 mile radius of your corporate office increases and deepens your talent pool. It also has a residual effect of reducing pollution and demands on public infrastructure. It is estimated that CO2 emissions dropped by 17% during the pandemic a significant portion of which was due to reduced vehicle traffic. This might be an important answer to the problem of climate change which will also resonate with new employees entering the job market.
However, there are also powerful bottom line cost saving benefits too. Commercial real estate costs had been increasing for 9 years at the end of 2019. These prices have undoubtedly changed in 2020 but the fact is that providing corporate real-estate is a significant line item on the balance sheet of every company. Organizations can now re-think their investments in sprawling campuses and the high end furniture and consider where to direct that spending.
Start with the Culture
Moving to a Remote First approach needs to support your organization’s people as they adjust to this working environment. Remote working isn’t about the technology, it’s all about the culture. It takes real organizational commitment to unlock the potential of people working remotely. This is an important piece of the fabric of a resilient and adaptive organization and the cornerstone of a Remote First strategy. Remote First means thinking of how to deliver the value of your organization without a centralized office. To do this you need every person in the organization to understand the commitment to working remote and ensuring they are enabled to work this way. This means promoting and rewarding individuals that are working remotely and creating career paths they can pursue to increase their skills. It also means finding ways to keep remote workers invested in the organization even as they have fewer of the reminders that they had when they were working in a corporate office. This could mean providing corporate Zoom backgrounds, green screens, branded mousepads and other reminders of the company. The organization will need to protect the mental health of its works such as affirming its commitment to the benefits of vacation for example. Since remote workers can work anywhere it’s easy for them to bring their laptops on vacation and adjust their schedules to stay connected. It’s important to support the need for constructive breaks from work to re-charge and re-energize. Remote First organizations will need to re-assess their corporate values and ensure these align to this new way of working.
Support Your People
People are the first consideration in moving to a Remote First experience. What does human connectivity and community building look like when people are working remotely? While technology and accessibility have improved significantly over the last decade it hasn’t completely replicated the experience of working together. Organizations need to consider how to recreate these experiences in a remote environment. The introduction of more accessible video conferencing has increased human connection when working remotely and the ability to connect anytime/anywhere has extended the work environment into a wide range of spaces. Now organizations need to consider how to create boundaries for their employees between work and their personal lives and support their mental health in this space. One way is to encourage employees to “unplug” periodically and to create their ideal work environment in a way they couldn’t in a more traditional work setting. This might mean working on their patio or even moving to a different location now that people are unencumbered by travelling to an office.
Remote work also introduces both a potential benefit and challenge; asynchronous communication. Ensuring your teams have a means to communicate even if they are not able to meet at the same time is critical. Persistent “chats” are increasingly becoming a necessary part of the technology required for remote workers including some, like Automattic, abandoning email with a micro-blogging platform that gives access to ideas and threads that would have been locked away in inboxes. Asynchronous communication enables team members in different time zones to participate in conversations and research has shown it tends to be accompanied with greater thought and rationale. However, this doesn’t remove the need for more traditional synchronous communication through Zoom meetings which build relationships, align multiple parties and are a better way to discuss sensitive topics.
There are other challenges that companies will need to prepare for as they move to this model. One concern is managing the health of your employees particularly as they begin their shift to permanent remote working. Ensuring safe and ergonomic work environments will be a shared responsibility of companies and their people.
Rethink Your Company
With Twitter recently announcing that its employees will be working remotely permanently it must lead Microsoft and Amazon to question their billion dollar investments in creating Spherical Greenhouses and Tree Houses for their staff. However, Twitter is not alone, Fortune recently surveyed CEOs and learned that more than 25% of their workforce will never return to the office opting to work remotely. Prior to the pandemic there was increasing interest in Zoomers and Millennials to have more flexibility in their work location. Now most large companies are starting to re-evaluate their investments in sprawling campuses with exercise facilities and cafeteria dining. In the past these investments were important to establish work environment that created ‘collisions’ that spurred creativity and ideas. Now organizations need to consider creating these in a virtual world. Some ideas include investing in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that looks at people and their work and connects them to foster creativity.
So what should organizations offer remote workers if they can’t provide tree houses and fitness facilities? These perks can still be extended to staff but in different ways, virtual exercise classes like Pelloton or Steezy are low costs ways to encourage healthy behaviors and providing Door Dash coupons, Amazon gift cards and high-speed internet expense allowances can offer the same benefits of onsite cafeteria but with more options.
Reimagine Your Future
As Satya Nadella recently stated organizations will progress through three phases as they deal with the pandemic: respond, recover and reimagine. Most are rapidly progressing through the respond and recover stages but now is the time to start re-imagining the future. Remote First is one of the first compelling visions of what that re-imagined future might look like. It’s time for every organization to start investing in how to enable and support their move to a Remote First structure.