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Agility in the Time of COVID-19

Six months ago millions of technology workers across the globe were abruptly pulled from our offices where we enjoyed regular and productive interactions with our colleagues, clients, and friends. We were thrust into distributed teams without a plan or the opportunity for training. What we’ve found is that technology workers are incredibly adaptable, but we must work harder to maintain our previous standards of work. To be successful, teams need to spend time inspecting their approach to the same Agile values that were germane before the crisis.

Agile practitioners often forget that Agility is an expression of values, not the observance of rules and procedures. Whether your team is Agile or not, Agile principles and the Agile Manifesto can provide guidance. Like the open office plan, Agility seeks to incubate efficient and productive interactions. These are naturally lessened in isolation, so you must take proactive steps to compensate for their loss. Specifically, Agile communications, user/customer engagement, and management are three areas in which teams must pay special attention in order to successfully adapt to this new operating environment.

Figures moving trello cards around on a trello board

Communications

The Agile Manifesto tells us that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face conversation.” The most obvious solution is of course… use your webcam! But sliding back your webcam’s cover isn’t enough. Teams must establish norms. These might include whether camera use is required, when calls can be recorded, and what’s considered appropriate attire (for example, casual might be OK for intra-team calls, but business casual attire required for all others). The value of webcam use extends beyond the typical benefits of visual communication; it often communicates a sense of transparency to outside collaborators. Before the crisis, I often heard clients praise our remote team’s openness after one or two video calls with work-from-home team members.

Speaking of transparency, effective and open written communication is especially important for remote teams as well. Modern ChatOps tools like Slack go a long way towards achieving this ideal. Project-oriented Slack channels create a common and transparent system of record for project progress and communications. They also help demonstrate team members’ contributions that might otherwise be hidden. For instance,  it can be all too easy for a timid team member’s work to go unappreciated in a remote environment. Written communications that are visible to the entire team mitigate this problem. If your organization has been unexpectedly thrust into a remote operating environment, you should consider implementing a tool like Slack immediately.

It’s also important to acknowledge the increasingly asynchronous nature of our communications. As working hours expand stemming from varied at-home needs and geographical distribution, our ‘on time’ overlaps less and less with our co-workers. When using Slack, clearly and concisely communicate your ‘ask’ of your counterpart. Be sure to articulate any required information for a substantive response; in other words try to anticipate any clarifying questions. This approach helps leverage the core advantage of Slack… a single interface for both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Customer Engagement

The cornerstone of Agility is user feedback; indeed the Agile manifesto demands that “our highest priority [be] to satisfy the customer…” and to do so by “delivering working software frequently.” As the world temporarily slows, don’t forgo customer engagement and use the lack thereof as an excuse to slow your velocity. Further, don’t assume that digitally collecting quantitative metrics means you can abandon qualitative feedback. If it’s difficult to recruit for in-person focus groups, find alternatives instead of reverting to gut instinct. Explore other engagement avenues, such as online focus groups or reaching out to power users for one-on-one conversations. Some ChatOps tools even allow for direct customer engagement. Remember, when using iterative frameworks, your customers must help inform what you build next. Chances are, their needs have radically changed in recent months as well. You should take this opportunity to welcome their changing requirements into your backlog.

Management

It can also be difficult for managers and executives to adapt to remote work. The Agile Manifesto provides guidance here as well, telling us to “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” From a management perspective, enablement and trust are foundational for motivating individuals. 

You must enable teams by listening to their current needs and provisioning the necessary tools to get the job done. If your team tells you they’re having trouble communicating, pilot new communications tools quickly. If the team is having trouble with remote network access, explore new technical solutions. The worst thing you can do is suggest that the team ‘just make the best of a tough situation’. 

Once providing your team with the requisite tools, managers must trust the team to use them effectively. Resist the temptation to ramp up check-ins or demand more status updates. These actions indicate and breed a mutual lack of trust and are likely to be perceived as micromanagement. Status update calls also create the illusion of progress while taking up valuable time. Perhaps counterintuitively, managers might consider taking a less hands-on approach when shifting to remote work. Set clear expectations around outcomes and timelines, and then allow team members the freedom to ‘wow’ you with their progress. Remember, “Working software [or business outcomes] is the primary measure of progress.” Checking off the status update box once per week is not a valid measure. 

The bottom line for managers is that teams must feel heard, and then enabled. If your organization is struggling to adapt to remote work, hold retrospectives in smaller groups that specifically address your unique remote work challenges. Those meetings should include actionable next steps and suggestions that remedy the concerns raised. Pilot tools, such as Trello, which allows managers to monitor progress in real-time, but from afar.

In Conclusion

Agility has always been about values, not timeboxes or fancy names for meetings. Holding the values of transparency, direct user engagement, open and honest communication, and trust isn’t enough to be successful, particularly in a remote working environment. You must inspect and adapt your approach to these values in our brave new virtual working world. Recognize that your retrospective time is more important than ever. Hold that time as sacrosanct and embrace macro-level assessment during these meetings. Each team is unique; your retrospectives will uncover their uniqueness and help you drive towards remote working efficiency. If you’re having difficulty getting started, contact us and we’ll be gladly help you explore the next steps on your remote working journey.

Andrew Politi Andrew Politi Andrew Politi is an expert agilist and product development specialist. He has introduced agile techniques to garage-based startups, large multinational organizations, and federal agencies. With a focus on emerging technologies, Andrew has helped develop wearable eye-tracking products and IaaS cloud solutions. More from Andrew Politi »