Agile methods have never been friendly to the idea of distributed teams. Collaboration and face-to-face communication are core principles that date back to the Agile Manifesto, and there are well-respected agile consultants who have included "distributed teams" in their list of agile failure modes.
Despite these warnings, it is more common than not for companies to have distributed agile teams. Many of the companies we talk to have headquarters in North America, but development teams scattered around the globe. However, in almost all of these cases, the teams themselves are usually co-located, with all team members sharing an office location. Rarely are individual members of an agile team off on their own.
Adapting Agile Practices
Today, however, we find ourselves in a new reality. COVID-19 is having a profound impact on the way we work. Overnight, we’ve gone from advocating that agile teams are most productive when they work face-to-face, to the reality that team members on those teams must work apart. While some companies have not pushed their employees out of the office entirely, many are recommending that they not use common spaces like conference rooms for collaboration. Employees sit at their desks—together but apart.
At the extreme end of the scale, many technology companies are sending their people home. This is because work-from-home arrangements are usually feasible in the technology space—employees often have laptops, even if they typically work in an office setting, and corporate infrastructure supports and easily adapts to a work-from-home model.
But that doesn’t mean that it is as simple as grabbing your laptop, going home, and setting up shop on the kitchen table. This is especially true for agile team members who have become used to close collaboration with their teammates. For many, this is a jarring change. Now, more than ever, the psychological impacts of these changes come into play.
Companies need to be very careful to pay attention to their people—it’s not enough for corporate IT to publish new remote work standards and then leave everyone to their own devices. Particularly with agile teams, care needs to be taken that the things which are so critical for success with agile—those things that foster collaboration, teamwork, and purpose—are not ignored.
We call this "virtual agility," or establishing a way of working that supports and nurtures virtual teams 24/7 so that they can be as effective working apart as they are in an office setting.
Five Principles of Virtual Agility
Acknowledge the change. For both front line workers and leaders, this will be a significant change that will impact people in unforeseen ways. Be mindful, considerate, and supportive—and above all—make sure that everyone understands how important it is that they remain engaged. Remember that alignment is key.
Provide virtual support. Collaboration is critical, so having collaboration tools in place is important. It is more than just remote meeting support like WebEx or Zoom. You will also need an agile lifecycle management (ALM) platform that can serve as a single source of truth in a virtual environment, supporting all the varied ceremonies that agile organizations require.
Leave no one behind. Don’t assume that everyone knows what to do and that they can just hit the ground running. In an office setting, people rely on their peers for help all the time. That is much more difficult in a virtual world, so make sure that people know how to get the training they need and set up support networks to provide help when needed.
Be purposeful. A 100% virtual world can seem chaotic at first. There are many meetings, and a lot going on. Make sure that your meetings have agendas and are focused on specific outcomes, schedules are communicated, and the support infrastructure is tested frequently and updated as needed. Holding dry runs of large meetings is recommended.
Be agile. Don’t expect that everything will go perfectly. It will be challenging at first because there is no way to avoid rapid change. Retrospect frequently, remove impediments, and strive to work more effectively each week.
Ian McGinnis is an architect of agile solutions with over 30 years of experience in software development. At Rally, he serves as an Executive Advisor, working directly with Fortune 100 companies to help them adopt true business agility. Ian is passionate about helping organizations figure out how to make business agility work for them, so that they can put their customers first and meet their business objectives in this challenging and disruptive time
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