Distributed Agile: The challenges and opportunities

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past months, you should be familiar with how the remote and hybrid work models are 'the new black'. This has prompted employers and managers to be mindful of adapting their infrastructure and organizational culture to those models, with actions such as investing resources in tools for virtual collaboration or enhancing IT and security services that are now essential to keep your workforce synced.

This article was originally posted a while ago. Still, due to how the phenomenon has evolved, we decided to refresh it to maintain its utility, especially after the radical changes the workplaces around the world have suffered because of Covid-19's outbreak. With around 26% of total US employees working from home as an example, we can now see a more complete picture of the impact of these remote models in the medium and long term. Let's go through them.

Topics to check

  1. The benefits
    1-a. Employee retention
    1-b. Make on-site work more efficient
    1-c. Access to a global pool of talent
    1-d. Soft skills development
    1-e. Productivity improvement
  2. The challenges
    2-a. Communication
    2-b. Potential salary cuts
    2-c. Technical issues
    2-d. Cultural adaptation
  3. The day after tomorrow

1. The benefits

Yes, working from the beach while sipping a margarita with the sunset as your background sounds idyllic. What about having a flexible work schedule that lets you shop for groceries and pick up your kids at school? Much has been said about the immediate perks of hybrid work for collaborators. Still, for this article, we would like to offer a more holistic vision of how employers and employees benefit from them.

1-a. Employee retention

62% of staff prefer remote work models and will be looking for hybrid work opportunities in the future, according to LiveCareer. Not only that, but 30% said they would be quitting their job in case of not being allowed to keep working remotely. That has made HR teams shiver due to the thread of collaborators walking out the door, but you should see those as opportunities rather than obstacles.

At HR Morning, Michele McGovern compiled some tips that can help your organization leverage this phenomenon in favor and improve employee retention:

Listen to employees

When it comes to people, one size can never fit all; that is why listening should always be the first step. Julia Anas, Chief People Officer for Qualtrics, suggests that "understanding how people think and feel can help organizations make the right decisions, at the right time, in the right way, to improve the experiences they are delivering".

Focus on what to do

After collecting the feedback, you will be able to understand the main constraints to build a strategy that can address general and particular situations.

For example, both Chloe and Joshua, who are on a service team, would like to keep at least two work from home days; Chloe volunteers in a dogs' refuge closer to her home than from the office. On the other hand, Joshua must stay home some days a week to care for his son when his wife has to attend her workplace.

Split the difference

You have proposed some action plans that include adopting several hybrid work models that can fit most employees. Based on your business model, size, and more, you must distribute workers as evenly and conveniently as possible.

Maybe you can offer the whole service team (where Chloe and Joshua work) a balanced schedule with one or two days where everybody physically shows up.

1-b. Make on-site work more efficient

A study by Qualtrics titled The future of work in 2021 - Perspectives on the next normal, states a fascinating perspective. It considers the office a 'landing pad' with an enhanced infrastructure where employees can go every now and then to meet a client, get their pc updated or greet the newcomers.

If the set-up is effective, collaborators will be happy to check in for a few hours and then return home with their families.

1-c. Access to a global pool of talent

It is easier than ever to hire international talent. Anita Samojednik, CEO at Paro financial services, thinks that "The democratization of talent is enabling businesses of all sizes to access top industry professionals who may have otherwise been only accessible to large or high-profile enterprises."

Anita elaborates by adding the fractional support concept, referring to more lax hiring policies for freelancers that "enables companies to easily scale up or down based on business needs, only paying for the specific expertise and skillsets they require."

It is not only an opportunity for companies, though. Thanks to remotely hiring support, people who could not work in their dream job due to commuting or geographical restraints can now have more chances of getting there.

It is worth mentioning that remotely onboarding a collaborator or a team can give organizations a hard time. Globalization Partners put together some useful ideas that you can try to better onboard and manage your remote teams in this article.

1-d. Soft skills development

Some time ago, we published an article with some ideas to adopt remote work models, where we included some stats related to the top challenges for employees. One of the most relevant is collaboration, which can be mitigated by adopting productivity software, but as we stated in another post, tools alone will not do the job. Check the full article here.

Think of the following example: Jesse thinks that properly documenting his job is not worth his time. It does not matter how many share points, video calls, or project management tools you throw at him: It will be hard for him to properly communicate his ideas with the team. So, before training Jesse on using the software, he must understand the value that documentation tasks bring to collaboration and success.

According to a poll run by Drake Pulse, learning to effectively communicate and developing problem-solving and critical thinking mindsets are skills that are not only fostered but needed for collaborators to get at their best while in a hybrid work model.

1-e. Productivity improvement

Statista's figures show that 44% of employees consider collaborating on new projects easier, while 43% believe it is also easier to secure relationships with new customers. Add that to the findings of an analysis run by Chandni Kazi from Great Place to Work stating that overall productivity rates went up during 2020 after the pandemic forced many companies to adopt a remote model.

Her analysis also found that, during the first months after the shift, perks helped collaborators stay motivated; however, during the following months and for the long-term, the leading productivity drivers were camaraderie and a positive culture.

Those are some of the most relevant benefits, statistically speaking. Now let's check the other side of the coin.

2. The challenges

Having the liberty to go and enjoy the beach while doing your job inherently implies that someone else will have to be ready to support the remote fellas in case of technical problems or cybersecurity matters. There are also other constant challenges amongst organizations that have gone hybrid.

2-a. Communication

The State of Remote Work 2020 study by Buffer states that 20% of remote workers consider collaboration and communication as their main obstacles.

You may have experienced it yourself. Turning your head around and asking a colleague about some task, checking the same screen, and trying to solve an issue seemed more straightforward than writing documentation and keeping meetings within the agreed time-boxes.

Some teams try to compensate the lack of physical interaction with excessive meetings, potentially neutralizing the flexibility of hybrid work. At Know Your Team's blog, Claire Lew put together some ideas that can help you mitigate those issues:

Take advantage of asynchronous writing 

Instead of privileging direct messages or video meetings, enable a platform where teams can share documentation in a structured fashion. This way, you give your team time to prioritize, think and be as transparent as possible to all stakeholders. One tool that might help you is Atlassian's Confluence, which offers an intuitive UX and is compatible with lots of great apps, such as Agile Retrospectives or ScrumPoker, both developed by SoftwareDevTools.

Send a message that fits the channel

Sometimes, you will need to use direct messages or video meetings; you got us there… The thing is that we do not mean you should restrict them, just use them as needed. But you must remain mindful of what you want to accomplish, so do not expect to go through a lengthy document during a call. It would be better to share it and meet some days after to check on highlights.

Avoid over-communicating 

Remote Agile teams are based on trust. There should be no need for people to constantly keep telling the whole group what are they working on at the moment. It is better to let everyone concentrate and perform rather than send status messages all the time.

Even for that, some solutions exist, such as Stand-Bot, an in-house developed app that will gather your team status on work in progress and blockers, regardless of location or time zones. All the team can then check everyone's update in a report. You can try it on Slack here.

We also suggest you check Claire Lew's article for more tips.

2-b. Potential salary cuts

Both Google and Facebook have openly stated they will be adjusting collaborators' salaries based on where they live. Another advocate is Gitlab, with its whole 1,300 remote workers, officially stating they base compensations on collaborators' location to keep costs within budget. 

That could also imply cutting pay for some workers, as suggested by analyst Sarah O'Connor in Financial Times. On the contrary, Reddit has stated that they "are eliminating geographic compensation zones in the US."

2-c. Technical issues

Navisite consultancy services found, thanks to a poll, that 51% of organizations experienced IT pains after the pandemic started, with 21% still facing issues as of October 2020. Even if some time has passed, installing a robust and optimal infrastructure to support remote operations requires the wits of technical and experts that can properly budget the needed equipment.

2-d. Cultural adaptation

To address this point, organizations tend to have teams specialized in people's development, which can be part of HR), in charge of developing strategies to offer a good employee experience. Check out some pieces of advice from Jennifer Jackson at the Lucidchart blog.

3. The day after tomorrow

There is obviously no way to precisely foresee how things will unfold. Keeping an eye on these trends is critical for teams and businesses to succeed and evolve. Remember, we have a section for remote work where you will find more ideas to mitigate the pains of hybrid work and leverage its benefits. Take a look here.

We also suggest you take a look at our first party crafted apps that will definitely help your remote team stay Agile.

Are you adopting or looking to improve your Agile practices? Is your team remote? If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, you should check out our products for distributed teams. We focus on making communication more effective and easier for remote teams.

Check out our tools:

  • Retrospectives for Jira & Confluence
  • StandBot
  • Scrum Poker for Jira & Confluence
  • Freshdesk + Trello
  • Freshservice + Trello

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Agile transformation for distributed teams needs the right tools. At SoftwareDevTools we focus on building tools that enable #Agile in remote teams. Real-time collaboration and productive discussions.

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