In 2019, before the pandemic, we were living in a relatively stable (and fast) developing world. The global economy had not been hit by major crises, but the speed of information flow was faster than ever, with more and more innovations coming to light every day. I'm not a fan of the term, but it's true... The VUCA world was at its peak (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). The question arises: are stability and uncertainty not contradictory? The answer is: in this case, no, because what is stable is that we are moving forward every day, we are evolving, but we do not yet know how we will do it. In fact, it is because of these things that agility has flourished.
But how did agility work, how did agile teams work? In 2001, in the Agile Manifesto, it was stated that "the most effective and efficient method of transferring information within the development team is a face-to-face discussion." As a result, Agile teams worked together, in the same space, at the same time. That is, indoors, in a shared office. A decent agile team had a whiteboard, a Kanban wall. And the cooler ones had a dartboard. While there were examples of teams distributed over space (especially in global companies), basically the sixth agile principle mentioned above was not really questioned, as personal presence led to fast communication, closer relationships and mutual trust. This in turn led to faster time-to-market.
Studies have shown how much more efficient and effective teams are when they sit together. At about the same time as the Agile Challenge, in 2002, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a study showing that teams sitting together can be up to three times as efficient and effective as the industry average. Yes, but what were we communicating with in 2002? I still remember my poor late grandmother's red, dial-up phone. But push-button landline phones couldn't do much more. That was when mobile phones started to become more widespread.
This did not change the way the conversation was held, it merely broke the link to the place. SMS brought a big change in communication, but its limitations meant that it was not suitable for communicating complex information. The best way of discussing these kinds of problems was clearly to be in the same room as the other party, let alone parties.
By the end of 2019, however, the number and sophistication of tools supporting real-time communication had increased dramatically. We could now chat with everyone through thousands of apps, and video calls were cheaper than traditional phone calls thanks to the internet. Meanwhile, the environment around us was changing faster than ever before, regardless of the virus situation.
It was at this stage that the pandemic hit us, and companies needed to react faster than ever before. There was no time for bureaucracy, decisions had to be taken at the lowest possible level, where the information was available first. It was also necessary to keep a constant watch on how the organisation and its members reacted to the changes that were rapidly introduced, and to adapt the lessons learned. In effect, COVID has forced a degree of agility on companies that were not previously operating on agile principles at all. And in this situation, McKinsey believes that companies that have the five characteristics of resilient companies, namely:
Let's see how the reaction has been put into practice! First of all, it is important to note that change should be considered at three levels: the company, the team and the individual. This article will focus on the middle one first, but changes affecting the team cannot be understood without understanding the other two levels, so we will look at these as well.
Let's start at the company level! It's quite obvious that the first change that comes to mind when we think of pandemics is that we went home. Virtually overnight. At my former workplace, where we had been working from home roughly one day a week (but not taking advantage of it), at the beginning of the first wave, on a nice Friday, the department of about 50 people decided to have a trial to see what it was like to have everyone working from home office on a given day. Then on that day came the company communication that everyone would stay home from Monday. And that's pretty much what happened everywhere that it was technically possible. I heard a great example of a quick response from someone in the domestic banking sector. In this company, teleworking had not been common practice before. So much so that a proper VPN had to be wired. As a result, there were no tools to support home working available to the teams. Teams were then empowered to each choose the tool that best suited their needs and supported collaboration. Rapid decision-making, empowerment...
In many places, the need to provide tools for high levels of teleworking was raised. One automotive supplier had a special home office contract before the pandemic for those who worked more than one day a week from home. They were required to have their workstation ergonomically approved, which could be done after a personal inspection by the responsible person. The new situation obviously did not allow hundreds or thousands of workers to have their home desks inspected in person. It was realised that this could be done on the basis of a photograph sent in. This is a small thing, but it shows that an organisation has responded well to the situation when it has been able to let go of its previous - often overly bureaucratic - processes.
In spring 2020, the "here and now" has become particularly important. At one large telecoms supplier, this meant that the agenda was removed from management meetings. Everyone brought the most topical issues, the most pressing problems. This meant that they could always deal with what was the most important to the company and its employees, rather than getting bogged down in an irrelevant issue simply because someone had put it on the agenda two weeks earlier. This way worked so well that once the new norm was established and there were significantly fewer decisions to be made affecting day-to-day operations, they kept the agenda-less approach.
In an agile work culture, the employee is at the centre. Where this was recognised, it was also realised that colleagues needed much more support in the new situation. Not just in their day-to-day work, but also in their personal lives. In addition, maintaining engagement is a priority. So they could kill two birds with one stone by starting to organise non-professional lectures with renowned speakers, online games, events on topics that promote mental health and loyalty. I heard of such activities at the automotive and telecoms supplier mentioned earlier. There were presentations on stress management, effective use of the home office, home ergonomics. I have seen recipe contests, online magic shows, participated in online escape room games.
The question arises as to what these have to do with agility. If we look at the methodological side of agility, nothing. However, these elements require a mindset that agility is built on, and the companies that could do them well were those that had the characteristics of agile companies mentioned above.
As a point of interest, I would like to mention a change that took place in a globally known electronics company. They had already established teleworking and distributed teams before the epidemic. Product Owners and business experts were typically based in the Western European headquarters, and they were the ones who met and had lunch together. Meanwhile, the members of the development teams sat in Eastern Europe, in Asia, and therefore became, wittingly or unwittingly, second-class citizens within the company. But when the pandemic broke out, everyone went home, this distinction disappeared and suddenly - as an unexpected positive side effect - those who had previously lived in a slightly separate world were on the same level.
When considering what the challenges were at team level, most people would probably mention the lack of personal contact. We didn't see each other, we didn't have coffee conversations. As a result, the flow of information became slower. As long as we were sitting in the office, we could just turn to each other and ask or say something. The Scrum Master often knew what problem the team was dealing with just by listening to the conversation of the people around him. From then on, however, he didn't instantly get to know people's problems. For me personally, it was a huge pain in the arse, because I never liked pre-arranged one-to-one meetings, I believed in spontaneous conversations, tea and coffee. But then, to ensure the flow of information, a lot of new things had to be organised, which before had been done on their own. And this caused everyone's diaries to get terribly full. It was not uncommon to have to be in 3 or 4 meetings at the same time, so prioritising this became much more important. Another challenge was that it was much harder to maintain attention in meetings in the online space. On the one hand, you could just check your inbox for an email or a recap of yesterday's football game (say I obviously never did... 😇🙈), on the other hand, you had to stir lunch, help your child with their odds and ends. Not easy...
These challenges had to be addressed as a priority in spring 2020. The use of cameras is evident. It was something that replaced, to some extent, the personal contact and the non-verbal part of our communication. We tend to think that we can deliver the message the same way on the phone, but when you think that thirty percent of the information is just the spoken word, and the rest is body language, emphasis... it's a different story. However, it was not necessarily easy.
In places where video calling was not commonplace, the switchover was not overnight. In my own team, I got some very interesting responses when I first asked to use the camera. I had people who spent a lot of time asking for approval (because they needed it at the time), setting everything up on the computer, and it didn't work. When it had taken a couple of hours to do this, I found out that there was no camera in the laptop. The circle above the screen was nothing but a black hole. Another colleague simply couldn't place the computer any other way, except by putting the laptop itself under the desk. My personal favourite was the one whose eyes were disturbed by the light, so he worked in a darkened room: 'You wouldn't see anything of me anyway'. So it wasn't easy. There are any number of reasons - all of them perfectly real - why someone might not turn on a camera. Because there's the family in the background, because it's a mess, because he hasn't washed his hair... Some of these can now be avoided by using backgrounds (if they work), but not always and not all. My experience is that people should be encouraged to use cameras, because it significantly increases the efficiency of the meeting (at least the ironing is not so much timed), it makes up for some of the human contact, but it should not be overdone. I've never seen a team fail just because they didn't always have a camera on. However, I have seen poorly performing teams who almost always had video.
It is also useful to solve tasks in pairs to facilitate cooperation and information flow. This is when pair programming was first used in a telecommunications company. It worked very well for them.
It is important to take time for "chatting" when working remotely. When we can talk informally about both professional and personal topics. We always had the opportunity to do this in the office, but in the home office we have to create it. It also helps to have personal contact, trust and team spirit.
Needless to say, 2020 brought a big breakthrough for companies developing collaboration tools. Just to name a few examples that I have used and my experience has been positive. For communication, Teams and Slack are great, especially if you can fully use both chat and call features. The former is more common in large enterprise environments, the latter is perfect for smaller organisations because of its pricing. For caching and brainstorming, there's Mural or Miro. The latter can do much more, the former's simplicity is its greatness. For tracking tasks, Trello, Jira are worth using.
Another essential element is that it may be worth rethinking the rules and norms accepted in the team, because we work in a different way, at a different pace and, above all, communicate differently from home. As everyone's life situation and home environment is different, it is even more important to fix what we expect from each other and what they can expect from us. It is also worth putting this on paper in the form of a "Social Contract". This is nothing more than a set of agreed behaviours and actions on a page, written down in a few bullet points. Discussing it together, reaching a consensus at the end, makes it much easier for everyone to stick to it.
I mentioned already at the company level that maintaining commitment is a priority under COVID. This is perhaps even more true for teams. Here, too, it's worth organising online team-builders, having a beer, playing games (AmongUs is a huge party). And when the epidemic situation allows, you can go out for a beer, in 3D. This can really boost teams.
The Scrum Master or Agile Coach is typically responsible for managing the above challenges in Agile teams. The role of the people lead is to support the whole team in the above by empowering them and providing the budget to use online tools, for example, and to help individuals prepare for the new situation.
For the past two years, I have worked exclusively from home in an agile team. That's why I've faced a number of challenges during the ceremonies. I would like to mention some of the most typical ones and the solutions I have found effective to meet the challenge.
Stand-up meetings in the office environment happen standing up for a reason. It's uncomfortable, we want to get it over with quickly. That's why it's effective. At home, sitting in an armchair, we feel comfortable, we have time. That's why, initially, we went into problem-solving mode a lot. This was also helped by the fact that we couldn't spontaneously step aside after the stand-up to talk through technical issues that affected fewer people. The solution to this was to add a chat blocker to the calendar immediately after the stand-up. This helped because it meant that everyone knew that there would be no other discussions, there would be an opportunity for these discussions. Those who needed to stay stayed, those who didn't, went about their business. Or we just discussed what had happened to whom over the weekend. And the result was that the classic daily stand-up could regain its effectiveness.
In the longer meetings that the team participates in (planning, grooming), I have often found that attention wanes and we get tired more quickly. Inside the office, a meeting lasting an hour and a half to two hours usually didn't have a break. But in the online space, in my experience, meetings longer than sixty minutes should expect a break. I did not schedule a fixed time for these. When I felt the team was tired, we simply took a five-minute break.
For the reasons above, I also saw on the demo that there was less feedback from the client. To overcome this, it is a good idea to use some kind of online feedback app like Menti or Sli.do.
For events where there are many of us in a conference call ("bigroom" events), efficiency can be drastically reduced. On the one hand, you are much more likely to run into technical problems, and on the other hand, many people are reluctant to speak in front of a large number of people. That is why, especially in those parts where there is a clear need to get the views of many people, it is worth using breakout rooms, which work very well in Teams, for example. And the results from the separate rooms are simply aggregated.
This raises the question of how the pandemic and the changes mentioned above have affected the efficiency and effectiveness of agile teamwork. My own experience is that after a transitional period, it has at least returned to the level it was at before, but there have been teams where it has even increased. I recently gave a presentation on the topic at a professional conference and asked the audience what they thought about the issue. Almost three quarters of respondents thought that there had been a slight or large increase in efficiency, while less than 10% of respondents thought there had been a slight decrease. And no one perceived a serious decline. This is in line with research from the University of Aalborg, which found that Scrum teams' productivity increased during COVID, mainly due to three factors: they had less other work-related tasks to focus on, they were simply happier working from home, and - the positivity of which is of course questionable - they spent more time working.
After the teams, it is worth looking at how the pandemic has affected individuals. These impacts are not specific to Agile teams, but are points that a good Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or any leader should be able to address. A certain monotony has developed, so it is important to try to find some way to make the working day varied, interesting and fun for colleagues.
Our work and personal lives can blur together, especially for those who tend to get too absorbed in tasks. I have had colleagues in my team who had to be told not to work late at night or on weekends. There was also a 'selfish' side to it. If you rested, you were more productive the next day.
This confusion can also manifest itself in colleagues having to deal with private problems during working hours because of children, family members at home, etc. We cannot avoid such situations, but we must be understanding in these situations. I would refer back here to the Social Contract, where we can set out how we will deal with these situations.
The new norm
Three years after, we can perhaps hope that the pandemic will be slowly put behind us, or at least that we will be hit by milder waves than before. At the same time, a new rhythm of working is setting in, and we are reluctant to let go of the achievements that have become the norm over the past two years. That is why it is important how we will operate from now on. What is clear is that over the last three years we have redefined the sixth agile principle. A face-to-face conversation doesn't have to mean sitting in the same room, facing each other. Rather, we can say that the most effective way to communicate is to talk in real time. When the Agile Manifesto was written in 2001, the reference was the red dial telephone, but today it is all sorts of smart devices that allow this reinterpretation. The thesis that an agile team can only be truly effective if its members are tightly locked together for most of their time has been clearly disproved. Meanwhile, in the labour market, the ability to work from home has become a competitive factor. More specifically, the opportunity to strike a balance between office and home working. Today, people looking for work are expected to work from home at least 2-3 days a week. At the same time, I have heard from IT headhunters that it is easier to bring people from a company where they do not go into the office at all than from one where a low number of home office days are allowed. This proves that we need peer relationships, especially now.
I've seen and heard of surveys in the automotive industry, in aviation, that companies have done among their employees. They show that employees think that the ideal in the future would be to spend two days a week in the office for a product development team.
This new situation is also an opportunity for companies, as office space utilisation is lower than in the past. Basically, there are two ways to exploit this. One is to give back some of the rented space, i.e. reduce costs. The other is to design the office so that the days that teams spend in there are as efficient as possible and people feel comfortable in the office. The two directions can of course be mixed.
Now, three years after the start of the pandemic, we can say that work has settled into a new rhythm. If we are forced to do so again because of another wave, another epidemic, or other factors, or if an organisation is simply set up so that we work entirely from home, we will know what to do. The technical facilities are there, the tools are available. But more importantly, we need to be aware of the different psychological influences on our staff. If we haven't already done so, let's lay down common expected standards of operation, behaviour and communication and review them regularly! And as managers, let us be aware of the need to foster human relations and to build mutual trust between team members, which is essential for effective work!
Writer: Gellényi Ákos