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A Practical Guide: Enhancing remote work with Agile methodologies

by Michaella Menin on 27 Oct 2020

Remote work has become increasingly popular among modern organisations, and with current health challenges, has become a necessity. Those companies who are able to quickly adapt to location-free business will equip themselves with a super power.

Everyone is talking about it – but are they really doing it, and are they doing it effectively?

Remote work has become increasingly popular among modern organisations, and with current health challenges, has become a necessity. Those companies who are able to adapt to location-free business, and adapt quickly, will equip themselves with a super power.

Notably, world leading companies such as Oracle, Spotify, Twitter, Apple, Amazon, Nestle and Google have embraced remote working structures for protective measures during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, remote work may very well continue to be a viable option if implemented correctly.

Moving to a location-free business model can be especially challenging for those who still value presenteeism over performance. Remote work requires a whole new company culture where employees are given more autonomy and are trusted to carry out tasks on their own. Adopting Agile methodologies can be hugely effective in managing a remote workforce, and to put processes in place to maintain effective communication patterns, especially when teams are separated.

Developing a new type of agile company culture amidst a crisis, while working remotely, requires significant changes. But once implemented, will become a competitive advantage in an unpredictable world where change is inevitable.

“Responding to change over following a plan” – A line from the Agile Manifesto that is most fitting when dealing with the current global crisis.

This article will provide you with some practical tips to enhance your remote business using agile methods, during emergency situations such as a global pandemic, as well as the inevitable changes in the future.

 

Adapt leadership styles

Firstly, to get organisation wide buy-in and willingness to adopt agile methods, leaders need to set the direction and communicate changes with their employees. It is, therefore, their responsibility to do this clearly, at the right level, all the while enabling flexibility. The leadership teams actions and behaviour set the tone for an agile culture to either thrive or fail.

For agile teams to be successful, leadership styles will have to be relearnt. Autocratic leadership styles limits peoples abilities for self-organisation and autonomy – two skills that are also necessary for remote workers to be effective. Adapting to a servant leadership style will help remove these blockers or impediments, so the system works more effectively for the individuals operating within it.

Leadership should focus on:

Communicating a clear purpose and direction

It is the leaders of the business who need to craft a compelling purpose around why change needs to happen and communicate a new roadmap for organisational wide buy-in. Consistency and repetition are key for the new purpose to sink in and new work principles to be adapted to.

Setting Biweekly ops call’s and QBR’s with the whole team is a simple yet effective practice that can be taken out of and adapted from the Agile handbook. These meetings are designed to consistently communicate key company objectives and can be used as a check-in to keep everyone on the same track and working towards a shared outcome. These meetings become increasingly important when working remotely as they become one of the few touchpoints where all team members are present.

Developing an agile mindset

Leaders also need to change their way of thinking to develop a more open, creative and adaptive mindset. Willingness and openness to change, continuously assessing data and re-evaluating situations are valued over sticking to plans. In a world where creativity and innovation is a driver for growth, an agile mindset becomes a competitive advantage.

An IBM survey of over 1,500 CEOs stated creativity as the most important leadership quality in a complex business world. Business leaders like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos are great examples of the power of creative leadership. With creativity comes experimentation and the willingness to take risks. Leaders in an agile company must also learn to be more relaxed with failure to create an environment where people won’t hold back on innovation.

 

Reorganise work structures and teams for collaboration and accountability

Truly being agile involves adopting new philosophies, values and work structures to be able to adopt new ways of behaving. Behavioural change is also key to adapting to remote work structures where management is forced to provide autonomy and empowerment to individuals and teams to enable self-organisation.

Behaviours such as being collaborative, being accountable, being willing to take risks, having an inquisitive learning mindset, being flexible and being outcome focused need to be fostered for agile, as well as remote work to be effective. However, you cannot have behavioural change without considering other dimensions of the operating model. Poorly designed organisational structures have a direct impact on a company’s behaviour.

Just as you cannot expect to create an agile business overnight, you cannot run a remote business without explicitly changing responsibility for the day to day direction and resource priorities. People find it hard to be accountable, collaborative and outcome-focused without clear accountability.

Teams should focus on:

Setting objectives for ownership and accountability

Firstly, it is important to have clear, measurable objectives and a timeline for achieving them. This becomes increasingly important when working in distributed teams as these objectives become the glue that holds teams together and drives them to deliver on shared outcomes. Breaking down projects into objectives and then into smaller actions to achieve these objectives will allow team members and stakeholders to take ownership. KPIs can be a great source of purpose and teamwork when used the right way.

Keeping teams focused on outcome based objectives and tasks can be practically reinforced through daily stand up meetings and regular check-ins. A few communication tools that help facilitate these check-ins when working remotely span from Kanban boards such as Trello which help you keep track of tasks and Tandem which allows you to have more informal daily team stand-ups.

Empowering for new skills and capabilities

Investing in people and empowering them with the skills needed to adjust and adapt to new working structures is an important part of any change program. People often feel that although they are expected to make big changes communicated by leadership or are being directed to work in different ways, they aren’t being equipped with the skills needed to do this. This could be on an individual or a team level. Without investment in these areas, teams will quickly lose motivation.

Working remotely has come with a steep learning curve for those companies who have lagged behind with technological change. Employees have had to quickly learn new technologies around online communication and collaboration, moving to and utilising cloud servers and new security protocols to name a few. Being agile means being better equipped to make these changes and empowering employees to constantly learn and develop new skills and capabilities as they are needed.

 

Agile practices to enhance communication and collaboration

Agile can work with virtual teams following a ‘distributed agile’ model to enhance collaboration, but this involves discipline, as well as good communications tools. Start by choosing the right suite of communication tools for your team which fits your natural communication needs and encourages the same close communication you would have in the office.

For quick question-answer communication, choose messaging tools like Slack or chat rooms with Tandem and for more collaborative, discussion based communication use Zoom and Hangouts with collaboration tools such as Mural or any online whiteboard. It’s important to distinguish between quick answers needed and in-depth conversations to allow team members to structure their time while still having sufficient information to be able to perform.

Transitioning to virtual communication while working remotely takes a while to adapt to. Be clear about the levels of interaction and tools teams will need to get used to should be agreed upon at the start. Again, taking a few rules from Agile methodologies, it’s a great idea to set up recurring sessions for daily stand ups, sprint planning and reviews to keep communication lines open and focused.

Taking on Agile Methodologies can assist organisations with adopting remote working structures. The key to understanding how to effectively work remotely is the underlying assumption that people are good enough and can be trusted with this responsibility.

But this does not happen overnight. Business leaders need to create a culture where employees are encouraged to take ownership of their own roles and responsibilities and feel empowered to carry out their own work. New working structures also need to allow for flexibility, adaptability and effective communication and collaboration to achieve outcome-based objectives.

Adopting an agile mindset will not only help your organisation adapt to the current challenges of Covid-19, it will also help you to be prepared to respond to any change or challenge which are bound to crop up in the future.

 

Helpful Resources for your Agile team:

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2010/sep/18/agile-working-flexibility-team-work

http://agilemanifesto.org/

https://medium.com/@MentorMate/communication-7-agile-strategies-for-managing-remote-teams-eb1f5bfd6973

https://lisettesutherland.com/2013/12/team-spotify-uses-hangouts-work-remotely/

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