Does agility go out the window when we work remotely?

Many of my agile teams are now working from home or making plans to work from home as shutdowns and concerns with spread of COVID 19 are now our “new normal”. Like many organisations, as agile coaches, we have started to put together guidance and advice for remote ways of working. 

The guides I’ve seen coming out are great but I can’t help thinking the focus has switched too much towards the “cool” technology we should use rather than looking at the human factors such as motivation, purpose, connectedness as well as empircism elements such as transparency that are essential elements for high performance teams. So does agility go out the window when we start working from home? Is it now tools over individuals and interactions?

Agility for remote way of working is more important than ever 

Having an agile mindset and staying true to agile principles are even more important when working remotely. Many of my teams have been distributed for a number of years and we have developed patterns and practices to ensure we keep our connectedness as a team. The only difference now is the scale of distribution as with our current circumstances, now everyone is likely to remote for extended period of times. 

Transparency, empiricism, collaboration and working towards a common goal become just that much harder. At first working from home might seem easy, but without a good approach, it might be difficult to get things to “done” and team members may revert to old patterns of working in silos. When working from home you are all part of a virtual team. Here are a  few techniques and tricks to be stay agile remain productive and keep work-life balance:

Build a routine to start your day

Think about creating the same routine as for going to the office but instead of getting to work, now you have a similar time each day when you  would sit and start working. Usually, you will
be able to work the same hours and you may even get much more done.

Therefore use the same routine as preparing to go to the office. This way your brain gets a clear
signal that now is the time to focus and start working.  Create a morning routine and make sure that you don’t stretch out your work day. For example, If you would normally work 9-5, you can reply to emails around 9 a.m. not 6:30 a.m.

Create a conducive work environment

Create a place which is clearly associated with work. Ideally, it would be an office at home or a separate room. Of course, not everyone has an office space at home, and then a simple dinner table can be good enough. Convert it into a clear desk. Remove anything that may be distracting from your line of sight even just temporarily. Take care of your body posture. Put your laptop at your eyesight. . Sit up straight with feet flat on the ground.

Organising the work, making plans

It’s harder to organise work at home because of all kinds of distractions around. However, the basic rule here is working from home is not being at home.

Daily stand up is also the perfect time to make a plan of the day with your team. Create your work plan for the day after the daily stand up.  A lot of people don’t like creating plans however when you don’t make a plan for the day you end up in a situation of no work done. It’s hard to see the end of work and know when to stop. Create a plan that covers breaks at work and lunch break. The minimal option is to have at least a TO DO list. Seeing progress on the list gives the motivation that you are contributing to the team’s sprint goal.

Input to the plan of today is the plan from yesterday plus the new work identified. Start with the goal for today. What is the single, most important thing you need to do today to contribute to the Sprint Goal? You can think about it like planning one-day Sprints. First the goal, then the tasks, then ask yourself if you have the capacity to do anything more. Order the list and go from top-down. Looking at the list from yesterday ask yourself if there is value in doing the undone tasks or maybe they are irrelevant today.

Creating a longer and longer list by moving tasks over can be demotivating so creating a plan in the morning leads to better productivity and less frustration later. Of course, you can inspect and adapt on the way.

Create state of flow to focus

You need to get into the flow state to do knowledge work. When you are in the state, work on the task until you finish it. Context switching between tasks and getting distracted will mean you break you focus and the total time spent will likely increase. Of course, this can influence your plan of the day, so you should adapt.

Flow is also about limiting your work in progress and mark your progress by striking the items on your TO DO list or moving post-its on your desk or moving virtual post its on a virtual board. At the end of workday review your work, the plan and do a quick retrospective. Make notes for tomorrow and close your laptop.

Plan clear end of work as the temptation at home is that the flow of new tasks won’t end as you could literally keep working on new tasks 24/7. Remember sustainable pace is still the aim so limit temptation to work overtime as if you push too hard, stress and wear will have an effect on your well being and quality of your work.

Organise your work into smaller slices

There are some more practices to organise your work. If the task is overwhelming, probably it’s too big. Slice it to smaller. Reach out to team members for help. Start small, eg write one section in the document. How to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

If you see no progress at a task, take a break and refresh. You can also switch to a small,
simple task and come back later. Watch your activity period. During the day we have different activity periods. Check when you are the most creative and plan accordingly. Do meetings and simple work in a different part of the day.

Take care of your body

Plan some breaks. It’s hard to focus for over 1.5 hours at a time and your body fatigues from the sitting position. When you are not well rested, you will see that your pace of work will decrease and you will start making mistakes. Take time to rest and regenerate.

Take care of the water level in your body. Water is needed to send electrical signals in your
brain and for the overall body chemistry to work correctly. Drink a glass of water. Watch your coffee intake.

Communication

Most people find working as part of a team very motivating and if remote and distributed this connectedness becomes challenging. You also need to feel like part of a team. Therefore, chat, call, video call with others. Knowing what others are doing or that they are waiting on you motivates. Do a little chit-chat, off-topic. Talk about news and sports like you would do at work at the water cooler. It helps to simulate working in a team. There is research showing that being isolated from others makes people feel worse and we are more likely to get sick. Talking to others daily is even more important in the current situation.

Summary

It is possible to work from home and stay true to agile principles. There are many cool tech tools and techniques you can use but don’t forget the agile mindset and human elements of the scrum framework. Create an environment conducive to working in an agile way remotely and take care of yourself. Experiment and see what works best for you – its all about Empiricism.

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