Preparing for a Work-from-Home Agile Team (posted March 11, 2020)

Given the global news, many people are no longer travelling for business or attending conferences. Individuals with a sore throat, who might otherwise have come into the office, are staying home for the day. If you have a co-located Agile team, it’s possible that on short notice, they might have to switch to working from home for several weeks. To prepare for this scenario, allow me to share some advice from the human side of Agile.

First, and obviously, people must be able to interact. Almost every client I have is set up technologically for occasional work from home, with laptops, VPNs, video conferencing software, messaging apps, and collaboration tools. If your company is behind on any of these, now is the time to close that gap.

However, technological solutions are only table stakes. The challenge will be to keep the team going as a team, and that will require intention and ongoing effort. Otherwise, they might devolve into a group, a bunch of people working in isolation, and miss out on the potential of teamwork. Consider getting your team together in the next few days to determine an approach, a plan, and working agreements specific to the team in case you all have to start working from home.

One key point to be aware of first: while Agile promotes co-location, being co-located in not a condition for agility (some people still believe it is.) Co-location helps people connect on a human level, improves communication, and reinforces shared values and purpose. Temporarily becoming a distributed team will pose challenges, but it doesn’t mean an end to agility. For instance, if you like using a physical board for managing work, a temporary switch to an electronic tool (even a spreadsheet) is a workable, reversible solution.

Since the team is the unit that turns out valuable work, Agile methods invite members to meet at frequent decision-points: planning, reviewing, and reflecting. These meetings are useful to the extent participants truly behave as a team by communicating transparently, collaborating, deciding together, and self-organizing. Implementing these principles in face-to-face meetings takes intention and preparation; expect to work harder on them if meetings are distributed. Take some time to read up on virtual meeting facilitation, and then look for virtual collaboration tools.

While many people appreciate the flexibility of occasionally working from home, the scenario we’re talking about here is not what they have in mind. It might last weeks. They may need to look after family members; they might find it hard to focus or work comfortably; they might also be the only person at home, and miss the camaraderie of the office setting. Working on tasks from a backlog might offer a semblance of normalcy, but the context (a viral outbreak) will make many feel stressed and worried. If you’re a manager or leader, here are some tips for that period:

  • If you regularly use the words “accountability” and “commitment,” they might create unnecessary stress in such an uncertain time. Trust people to act as responsible adults, and remember that they’re in uncharted territory.
  • Fight the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome, in both yourself and others. If you’re not used to chatting with each team member daily, start doing that, if only for a few minutes each time. Listen more than usual; help them cope and relax; support them as necessary; make sure they keep connecting with their colleagues too. This is no different than what you might otherwise do face-to-face in the office, but initially it might feel forced. Don’t worry about conversations becoming more personal than usual — that can be a very good thing.
  • If you plan work with time-boxes, such as sprints, the high volatility of the situation might throw off your plans. Consider temporarily switching your planning to a flow-based approach, for instance with WIP limits on work intake. The team will still plan frequently, work on the same priorities, and move items through the same states, but their experience may be less stressful. Be aware that some people might feel nervous about this suggestion if they interpret it incorrectly as a bigger, formal transition to Kanban and therefore one more thing to deal with in a chaotic situation.

 

Agile is a great choice for ambiguous and volatile situations, but it does assume some stability in the team itself. The temporary situation we’re in might throw even a performing team into a storming stage. Remember: people before process.

 

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