Remote IT Work Encourages New Agile Approach

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Click to learn more about author Cliff Berg.

Is remote work here to stay? We think so, at least for information technology (IT). That is because IT workers have shown that they are at least as productive remotely, perhaps more so.

Also, the advantages of going remote are just too compelling: Companies can now access a global workforce to find any talent they need, no longer constrained by where they are. And they do not need to maintain expensive offices.

High-speed internet and increasingly reliable video conferencing make being there in person less essential. And wall-sized displays are coming. Why run to another building or across town — or across the globe — to meet with a routine work colleague when you can see them life-size in your own room? This makes the “agile team room” obsolete.

A global team has a disadvantage, though, even with first-rate telecommunications: time zones. If a team is global, then while for some team members, it is 4 pm, for others, it might be 4 am, and so it is not practical to meet face-to-face much of the time. Thus, to reap the full benefits of being global, people need to learn how to work asynchronously. Gitlab, an all-remote company, has pronounced that we should embrace asynchronous communication.

Agilists will immediately feel that being asynchronous prevents quality communication. There is an agile principle that goes, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” That is not always true, however. It might be true for simple things, like “Hey Lauren, what is the data type of the customer ID field?” but it is not true for complex things such as, “Let’s figure out how we want our new product to work.” For that, one needs a mix of discussion, writing (and reading), sketching on a whiteboard, private thinking, more discussion and sketching, more private thinking, more writing (and more reading), and so on — over time.

Collaboration about a complex topic is not an event. It is not a meeting. It is a series of interactions, occurring through multiple formats and modes over time. This is why the Agile 2 movement emphasizes all modes of collaboration (talking, writing, reading, drawing, and thinking), as well as the need to focus — in other words, think deeply — and also have deep conversations in a very small group and one-on-one.

To be clear, real-time face-to-face communication — either in-person or remote — can be very beneficial for brainstorming activities. A product manager, technical lead, and designer often benefit from real-time brainstorming and collaboration about customers and product features. Being in the same room is arguably ideal for brainstorming but can effectively be replaced by working together companionably while all in a video conference room (Zoom, WebEx, etc.) if the trio are located within a few time zones of one another. Sharing product mockup wireframes sometimes even works better if everyone is looking at their own screen.

On the technical side of product development, brainstorming is a pretty small percent of the technical work. Most people’s time is spent “heads down” at their own computer. When they do need to talk face-to-face, there is videoconferencing. And if one pairs a tablet with the wall display, one can even draw on the screen for all to see — a virtual whiteboard. The advice then is that the team members be within a few time zones of each other so that they can talk remotely when they need to.

Working remotely is different, however. Ian Tien, CEO and co-founder of Mattermost, also a remote company, has observed that for remote teams, writing skills become more important. Just as Jeff Bezos realized that discussions in his organization had become dumbed down and that the only way to bring them back to a deep level was to get people to write down their ideas, remote workers will have to get accustomed to writing again: writing clearly and concisely, because if it is concise and clear, people will read it and read all of it, rather than thinking “I don’t understand” and giving up.

Perhaps we learned to read and write for a reason! Perhaps the ability to communicate effectively through all modes is essential for knowledge work, even if one prefers one mode over another.

Team leads must learn to work differently as well. Before COVID-19, there was a great dysfunction in that if someone was sitting at their desk in an agile team room, they were assumed to be working. Yet all too often, they were not focused. The distractions of the team room were blocking their ability to “go deep” in their work and make progress. People were staying at the surface of their minds; they were not productive. They often stayed late or went to extreme lengths, such as wearing headphones, in order to get the isolation and focus they needed.

Team leads need to stop relying on looking around and instead need to proactively check in with people. They also need to inspect people’s work. By looking at their work, you see what they are actually doing and how well it hangs together. For example, if you ask a programmer if they wrote tests for a feature, they might say, “Yes, that’s done,” but if you look at the test suite, you might observe that yes, they wrote two tests, but the tests are insufficient and improperly written. You might then realize that the person needs to pair with someone who has more expertise in that area. People often do not know what their own deficiencies are.

Indeed, Agile 2 challenges many typical management and leadership practices. Recurring meetings are discouraged as the chief cause of full calendars. Instead, leadership must create a culture of maintaining dashboards for every dimension of function. One must also create a culture of results-oriented servant leadership and deep discussions. Instead of a leader saying, “I only have fifteen minutes, so what’s the ask?” a leader seeks to understand the issue at its root level.

Agile 2 identifies leadership as the most important thing of all, with respect to an organization’s function. With the right leadership, the methodology almost does not matter because the right practices will develop over time, but with bad leadership, no methodology will be successful. It identifies a range of leadership styles and modes that are particularly effective for an organization to be agile.

Leadership styles cannot be changed easily. Executives must not only identify the forms of leadership that they want to predominate within their organization: They must also advocate for and demonstrate those forms of leadership themselves. And they must devise strategies for identifying individuals who exhibit the preferred leadership styles.

Leadership is a complex topic, and one size does not fit all. The issue deserves nuance and thoughtfulness rather than a single-minded prescription.

Interestingly, it has been found that while in-person teams tend to self-select those who “look like a leader” rather than those who are actually effective, remote teams tend to naturally select leaders who are doers and organizers: those who actually deserve a leadership role. Remote working also empowers those who are soft-spoken and thoughtful — in other words, introverts, and studies have found that introverts are often excellent team leaders.

The bottom line is that remote teams are an inexorable trend for many kinds of work, particularly IT-related work. For those kinds of work, COVID-19 did not inject an aberration in our work but rather accelerated trends that were inevitable. It is essential that people adapt to the new paradigm and learn how to approach it effectively.

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