Maximizing Team Agility for a Post-COVID-19 Era

June 30, 2020 Gautham Pallapa

The global pandemic that we are grappling with has resulted in social distancing, remote working, and sheltering in place. And although flexible workplace strategies have gained momentum lately, remote collaboration for the entire workforce has presented considerable challenges for some organizations, especially those early in their business transformation journeys.

Agile development teams have traditionally relied heavily on colocated teams as a factor for success. The Agile Manifesto directs teams to prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools. And a core principle by which agility abides is that the most efficient and effective method of conveying information, both to and within a development team, is face-to-face conversation. This principle utilizes osmotic communication—the flow of information that takes place  in the background of team members’ hearing—whereby relevant information is picked up or transferred through osmosis.

This principle gets challenged somewhat when distributed team members are brought into the mix, but agile development teams have been able to overcome this issue by inviting those remote team members into a virtual extension of the physical workspace. That is, until COVID-19, which invalidated the approach and ushered in the necessity of 100% remote work environments. Not only has the grounding presence of a physically colocated workspace been uprooted, but in the absence of that important tether, new challenges have arisen that impede the productivity and performance of agile development teams.

There are three critical areas of team agility that are changing due to this global pandemic: communication, collaboration, and empathy. 

Impactful communication 

For distributed agile workforces, particularly those in which team members set their own hours, ensuring open and impactful communication is critical. Unfortunately, there is limited opportunity for drive-bys, hallway conversations, or breakroom chats in a remote world. All of which  necessitates implementing digital twins of these social activities.

Because daily stand-up meetings, spindowns, retros, and face-to-face huddles can be arduous to replicate in remote teams spread across different time zones, some teams have developed collaborative approaches to address these challenges. Switching each iteration to a different time zone and committing to an earlier- or later-than-ideal meeting time at a reduced cadence are just two examples of common approaches to distributing the pain. 

Meanwhile, asynchronous collaboration tools such as messaging clients, wikis, and brainstorming tools facilitate the clear communication of consistent information. Ensuring a steady cadence of traditional communication methods such as town hall meetings, open forums, tech briefings, and newsletters also helps permeate information throughout the organization. 

There is, however, a downside to all this: an overabundance of information flowing through various channels and mediums. Indeed, the amount of messages, emails, notifications, newsletters, and communications has grown to the point of becoming work spam. In a closed system such as an organization, the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) drops significantly, degrading the communication. Taking a cue from radio communication, a way to improve SNR is by introducing an active filter that reinforces positive feedback and amplifies the signal (valuable information) while reducing the noise. Prioritizing quality over quantity will disseminate information more effectively. 

Another approach is to use a mixer to modify or shift the signal, which can be accomplished by enriching the information itself as well as the modes of communication used to deliver it. Where possible, use infographics, dashboards, charts, or visual indicators to showcase value to the organization. Doing so also makes communications more impressionable, personable, and relatable. Conveying why the information is important to the workforce, and how it impacts and improves team members’  lives, has become more essential than ever.

Remote collaboration

Another challenge for distributed and remote agile teams is ensuring effective collaboration during pair programming, iteration planning, research, or architecture discussions. New additions to the standard developer productivity toolset, such as conferencing and screen sharing tools, have helped to a degree, but are not enough. Several innovative applications that try to mimic physical interaction—such as watercooler conversations, hallway chats, drive-bys, etc.—have also become popular with remote teams. 

This trend of providing digital twins to the remote workforce will continue to be popular, as they provide a platform of familiarity in this chaotic time. And better ways of collaboration will continue to emerge, with tenets in design thinking and lean experimentation in addition to agile methodologies. 

However, switching to a remote method of execution is not just a matter of adopting new software for team members. It is also about helping them enter a state of psychological safety and productivity within the confines of their homes. This means ensuring they have high-speed internet, virtual private networks, and comfortable office furniture (ergonomic chairs, sit-stand tables, monitors, etc.) and that any other, small things that might become annoying—and possibly downright problematic—after long hours of remote pairing (uncomfortable mice or keyboards come to mind) are adequately addressed. 

Team leaders need to have open and transparent conversations with their teams to establish personalized, local, productive spaces. While it will require a new budget or the redirection of funds to invest in workforce productivity, organizations that commit to these actions exhibit irrefutable evidence of how much they value their team members.

Notably, this new budget should not be limited to the physical aspect of productivity. Workforce enablement is another important area for investment—providing empowerment, learning, and the tools or technology necessary for the workforce to improve team agility. In a remote environment, in addition to the ability to provide necessary tools and technology for remote workers, there is an overabundance of learning channels and opportunities. The challenge is to implement efficient, remote enablement strategies that continue to reinforce the organization’s vision and, at the same time, help team members achieve their objectives and key results.

Team empathy

For many organizations, the move to agile teams would have been challenging in and of itself. Add to it the anxiety of managing remote agile teams and guaranteeing comparable throughput, and one has a recipe for immense stress within the organization. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that what we are all enduring is not a willing experiment in working from home—rather, it is borne out of necessity.

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, those related to physiology (breathing, food, water, warmth, rest) and safety (security in clans, morals, employment, health) are most important for humans, followed by the need for love or belonging. Social distancing measures and shelter-in-place mandates have impacted our safety and sense of belonging by isolating us from familiar and safe environments such as physical offices, coffee shops, restaurants, and collaborative workspaces. Everything now feels like a threat, which induces considerable stress.

These disparate environments have now collapsed into a single, continuous workspace co-habited by partners, children, pets, and other loved ones who are also struggling with these new modes of interaction. It is almost like quantum entanglement—chaotic, intriguing, eventful, and constantly moving toward entropy!

It is, therefore, futile to expect the same level of productivity, throughput, or velocity with teams. While everyone aspires to focus on the work at hand, the currents of life intervene in the form of those partners, children, pets, and more. Organizational leaders are therefore encouraged to communicate their expectations of lower delivery and to emphasize the importance of their team members’ psychological safety.

It is, therefore, heartwarming to see many organizational leaders demonstrate their increased emotional intelligence along with genuine investment in employee work-life balance and well-being. There are several cases of leaders putting their employees' physiological and psychological safety ahead of traditional business drivers, and I feel that is a win for humanity overall. It enables team members to focus on their loved ones in these stressful times and not only endears leaders to the workforce, but will pay cultural dividends over the long run. 

Organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs, and behaviors of an organization's workforce, and is driven by a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and common purpose. Colocation has a large impact on the instillation of organizational culture, so building organizational culture with a workforce that will be predominantly remote will be a great challenge and opportunity for many organizations.

A new form of agility

The global pandemic has forced all of us to reconsider the foundations of working in an office environment and adapt to a new way of remote execution. It’s highly likely that social distancing will continue in a post-pandemic world, at least for a while, which will keep part of the workforce working remotely. It is therefore imperative for individuals, teams, and companies to adapt to this new norm. We are already seeing evidence of it in the form of richer asynchronous communication methods, increased acceptance of personal intrusion in professional settings, and improved empathy among teams. 

The principles behind the Agile Manifesto will continue to be relevant in the post-pandemic era, and the new ways of working collaboratively, communicating transparently, and demonstrating team empathy will enable a growth mindset and help agile teams discover new norms of productivity and performance. It is definitely a stressful, challenging, yet exciting time to be part of this global experiment.

Read more

How COVID-19 Is Spurring Empathy and Innovation in the Enterprise

Business Transformation Simplified: 3 Guiding Principles

Business Transformation Simplified: The 4 x 3 Approach

The 5 Pillars of Digital Transformation

About the Author

Gautham Pallapa

Dr. Gautham Pallapa is a Global CTO for VMware, where he works with enterprise customers to transform their strategy, processes, technologies, culture, and people to achieve their objectives and business outcomes. His mantra is "Transform with Empathy" and partners with organizations on their transformation journeys with customer delight and employee experience at the core. Dr. Pallapa was previously VP of Engineering at Intrado, successfully driving enterprise and team agility, lean experimentation, CI/CD, and DevOps at enterprise scale. He is a Safe Agilist, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, an Agile Coach, sharing his knowledge and validated learnings through talks and articles.

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