How will WFH affect our ability to be Agile?
'The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.'
The above statement as some of you may recall refers to one of the twelve Agile principles in the Agile Manifesto. Associated with face-to-face conversation is the practice of collocation which Agile teams use to enhance collaboration and communication. However, in these current times, we cannot enjoy face-to-face communication and collocated teams, so how does this impact our ability to be Agile? These are my thoughts.
I'm sure most people will agree that an in-person conversation trumps all else, however with the technology available today, video calls are a good alternative. Sure there are some missing elements but within the constraints that we are now working, I think it's fair to say that video calls are a new version of face-to-face.
What I think is important here is that many teams forego video calls, opting to use only audio instead. There are many reasons for this from having limited connectivity to not wanting to be on camera, however, in doing so they are missing out on the benefits of face-to-face communication which as per the Agile Manifesto principle is a superior form of communication for teams. With video calls, we can pick-up non-verbal cues such as body language and expressions which convey meaning and confirm understanding. Video also discourages multitasking, encouraging focus and attention from everyone in the meeting, and results in a more valuable use of the time spent on the call. For these reasons, it is therefore recommended to have video on for high-stakes meetings.
Seeing faces on a call also helps with empathy. This, in turn, strengthens the relationships between team members and builds trust in the team. These are very important elements for a team that will inevitably have to navigate conflict situations when they are working together to solve complex problems and build innovative products.
Since it is cognitively draining to monitor your appearance on camera, as well as the other people on the call, I recommend hiding your video on your display. This will feel more like an in-person conversation, and an added benefit is that there is more screen space to see other participants. Currently, only Zoom has the feature available, however, it is possible to minimise your self-view on other video calling tools as well.
What about collocation?
Interestingly some people think that we cannot be Agile or do Scrum if the team is not collocated. I don't agree with this, as many distributed teams have used Scrum successfully, and actually, the Scrum framework does not prescribe collocation at all. Ultimately collocation is an Agile practice, a.k.a. a tool and the first Agile value in the Manifesto is "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools". This means that Agile teams should be free to choose how they want to work and which tools and practices they want to use.
What I have seen in practice is that when teams are given this freedom, they have chosen to collocate, especially at the start of working together. Over time they introduce working off-site partially and end up with some sort of hybrid which is a balance between having focussed thinking time for deeply cognitive work and collaborative time with their teammates for creative problem solving, alignment and ideation.
Looking back about a decade ago, I worked with an Agile team that was a mix of in-house and external developers for a particular product. The organisation was an internet provider so we had superior video calling technology available to us. However, the team found it much easier and less disruptive to be in the same room for understanding requirements, planning and solutioning so we ended up hijacking one of the company boardrooms for our exclusive use and this served the team for the times they wanted to be together face-to-face.
In all of this, another important Agile principle comes to mind: "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams." – The key word here being self-organizing, which means allowing a team to determine which practices, tools and processes they will use.
The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001, and technology has advanced a long way since then, making virtual face-to-face communication a feasible option for teams. The Agile approach came about, in response to dissatisfaction with waterfall-orientated methods, which were heavily regulated, overly complex, and micromanaged, making it difficult to respond to changes from an increasingly dynamic external environment. The world had changed and the older methods were no longer suitable. The world has shifted quite significantly in 2020 and will continue to change in ways we cannot plan for, therefore I believe if we are truly being Agile, we should be open to adapt and change, as per the fourth value in the Agile Manifesto: "Responding to change over following a plan".
Only time will tell the impact of the loss of physical face-to-face interactions for Agile teams, however, so far stats are showing that high performing teams have been able to deal with the change to complete remote working. This InfoQ report summarises the findings of many surveys on remote work since COVID-19 and this article focuses on the specifics of remote work and productivity.
In conclusion, I think we should recognise that the world is very different to when the manifesto was written in 2001 and that we are not violating the spirit of the values and principles with distributed virtual teams. In time hopefully, we will be able to revert to a more natural balance between actual and virtual face-to-face, but in the meantime, we will have also accomplished some other things that we never had before, such as:
- Advancements in technology for remote working
- More diversity and connectedness wider than our immediate culture
- Better health
- Less impact on the environment
- More faith that teams can deliver without the need for onsite supervision.
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