As organizations adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, their agile teams can be a real source of competitive advantage. Such teams1 are typically well suited to periods of disruption, given their ability to adapt to fast-changing business priorities, disruptive technology, and digitization.
But the abrupt shift to remote working in response to the coronavirus has challenged the typical approach to managing agile teams. Traditionally, such teams thrive when team members are co-located, with close-knit groups all working in the same place. Co-location allows frequent in-person contact, quickly builds trust, simplifies problem solving, encourages instant communication, and enables fast-paced decision making.2 And while we know from experience that agile teams that have worked remotely from the start can be as effective, the sudden transition of co-located teams to a fully remote approach can reduce cohesion and increase inefficiency (Exhibit 1).
The good news is that while it takes real work, much of what leads agile teams to lose productivity when they go remote can be addressed. In fact, if the necessary technology is in place, a talented remote team can deliver just as much value as co-located teams. Assuming a firm’s IT function will handle the organization’s technology, we’ll focus here on the kinds of targeted actions agile leaders can take to sustain their people and culture and recalibrate their processes.
Sustaining the people and culture of a remote agile team
Remote work for agile teams requires a considerable shift in work culture. Without the seamless access to colleagues afforded by frequent, in-person team events, meals, and coffee chats, it can be harder to sustain the kind of camaraderie, community, and trust that comes more easily to co-located teams. It also takes more purposeful effort to create a unified one-team experience, encourage bonding among existing team members, or onboard new ones, or even to track and develop the very spontaneous ideas and innovation that makes agile so powerful to begin with. And these challenges are complicated by the unique circumstances of the current health crisis. Teams working from their living rooms or their dining-room tables are often sharing that space with children or other family members also working remotely.
Teams already operating remotely before the crisis are less likely to struggle, given their ability to handle ambiguity without losing focus and to concentrate on outcomes over processes. But many teams that just switched to a remote way of working are facing new challenges, which may require revisiting team norms, cultivating morale, and adapting a team’s approach to coaching.
Revisit the norms and ground rules for interaction
Virtual whiteboards, instant chat, and videoconferencing tools can be a boon to collaborative exercises and usually promote participation. But they can also require teams to reconsider existing norms and agreed-upon ground rules.