Agile is disciplined, not reckless.
Entering the 4th quarter of 2020, we have been living in a remote world for six months. In that time, both organizations and individuals have struggled to adjust to this monumental shift in the way we work. For 15 years, agilists have been saying that co-located teams and face-to-face interactions are the most effective methods of communication and delivery, and now we’re living in a world where that’s just not possible.
Many organizations have started to consider bringing their employees and consultants back on-site, even though it is still not safe to travel or be around large groups of people. The reason is because a significant number of agile coaches and agile teams have not been as effective during this time. In addition, organizational expectations have not substantively changed. They have challenged their teams to maintain the same levels of productivity, throughput, and quality of delivery on the same schedule, despite the reduced efficiency of communication and collaboration.
Now, it is possible to meet that challenge. Distributed teams aren’t new and we have been solving these problems for years; it’s just a matter of scale and the organizational commitment to providing teams with the resources necessary to rise to the challenge effectively. It is tempting to expect your employees to make do with the tools and resources currently available to them, but that is a short term benefit that will lead to long-term consequences. Instead, we must recognize that the circumstances of delivery have changed and a small investment now will pay dividends in the future.
Make communication easy.
The first and most important thing you can do is to make it as easy as possible for your employees to communicate with each other and anyone else they may need to collaborate with, such as your vendors, suppliers, and external partners. Be wary of communicating by e-mail. Two of the Fortune 500 companies I have supported during the pandemic use e-mail as the primary form of communication. This allows individuals to send e-mails, content knowing that they did their part, and then wait 1 to 2 to 3 days for responses before following up.
Email is an incredibly ineffective form of communication that primarily serves to allow us to pass the buck to other employees when things go wrong. “It’s not my fault. I e-mailed so and so 3 days ago,” should not be the battlecry of the pandemic.
Instead, consider a well-established hierarchy of effective communication methods for coaching and training already:
Face to face communication is the most effective form of communication
If you cannot meet face to face, use a video call
If you cannot meet on video, use a phone call
If you cannot get on the phone, use an instant messenger
If you cannot reach someone via IM, use e-mail
And the secret sauce to that method is, if you have to use e-mail, use e-mail to schedule a conversation.
So invest in the right set of collaboration tools that will simulate face-to-face communication and team environments as much as possible. There are organizational tools that allow teams to simulate office space with private rooms and open areas. You can engage with anyone in an open area, or “knock” on the door of anyone who’s in a private room. Additionally, you may want to consider that some larger organizations tend to have multiple tools. Giving every department or team freedom of tool choice may seem like a good thing, but what actually happens is that it becomes harder for people to communicate, because now they need to identify the appropriate communication channels. It’s even worse if you have to download or install new tools just to speak to a specific person, something you may not even have permission to do if you don’t have administrative rights on your work computer. So what’s the answer? Simplify. Simplify the choices, and enable everyone to use the organizational tool of choice effectively.
Encourage continuous collaboration.
Once you have a simplified communication tool set, start to think about how to encourage continuous collaboration between the people who need to work together regularly. The single most efficient team I’ve ever worked with had a team culture of dialing into the same video call every morning, and then staying in the call all day. There was an agreement that you could keep your camera pointed at the top of your head so nobody could see you, but they could see that you were present. And then collaboration was easy. The team could just unmute themselves and talk to anyone else. It wasn't magic, just a team recognizing the situation and coming to an agreement on how to best stay effective at a distance. Whatever you decide to do, you need to enable your people to reach each other and get answers quickly. If you have another approach to achieve those same outcomes, go for it!
For software engineers, managing check-ins and change sets requires a base level of collaboration with the other engineers on their teams. But if you’re in a less-collaborative, non-software environment such as Finance, HR, or any of the other dozen major corporate functions, you may find virtual collaboration a lot harder. The single biggest challenge will always be version control of whatever documents you’re working on. Wouldn’t it be much easier if you invested in one of the tool suites that allows for multi-user editing and collaboration? Then version control is no longer an issue because everybody is working out of the same place, and the files will inherently track all changes for you. I’ve commonly heard from organizations that already have an instance of Sharepoint that their teams can just use it for this. To be clear, Sharepoint is not your solution to this problem. It is a great file management system with a lot of valuable applications, but increasing collaboration is not one of them.
Take advantage of remote work.
Once you’ve got teams working and communicating together effectively at a distance, it’s time to consider taking advantage of the unique opportunity that remote work offers your employees. In the last six months, there has been an unprecedented increase in the demand for remote training and online learning. While this may require more preparation on the side of the instructors and an investment in remote training tools, the flexibility outweighs the cost. Employees no longer have to travel or sacrifice entire work days (or weeks) in order to get a professional certification. Also, if you are an instructor, the more people you can get into your classes, the wider your voice will spread and the more influence you can create in the organizations that you’re working with.
The shift towards remote coaching and training has been a long time coming. We have the opportunity to ride the wave of the next generation of workers and their expectations around working in and around the office. If we set ourselves up for it, we will be able to meet the changing expectations without sacrificing quality, time to market, and most importantly employee engagement.
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