Transforming Your Remote Workforce

Article Agile

Before the global pandemic known as COVID-19 hit center stage, what were your company's goals for technology, products, and services?  Many of you would likely say that Agile Transformation was underway or certainly on the horizon. 

Many companies put their progression on hold to wait it out – thinking surely this situation would improve or go away. Now, several months later, companies are starting to wonder if they should resume such important initiatives. How would it work? How can they be successful with such mass change when their workforce is remote, and communication is strained?  Maybe they should wait a little longer and expect things to go back to the way they were.

The way we have always worked is changing: 59% of U.S. workers who have been working from home during the pandemic would prefer to continue1.  With this mass shift to remote work, companies that could adapt are realizing there are many opportunities for cost-savings and that the virtual workforce model works.  Furthermore, not being able to adapt to this shift, or any trend for that matter, is the biggest issue of all. Small and large organizations alike need to evaluate how they will operate with agility during these uncertain times.

So, now do they push more change? What happens if they don't? Do they fall further behind when their competitors decide to go for it?

Here are four steps to help you navigate as you prepare for or further your Agile journey with distributed teams.

1. Understand Virtual Collaboration
Communication is vital through all that we are undergoing these days.  And if you’re considering additional changes, make sure your workforce can do their current and future roles effectively with useful collaboration tools. 
Are companies already doing this?  Absolutely.  Is the ivory tower making the decisions for their people? Absolutely.  Here’s an idea: ASK YOUR PEOPLE how they need to interact to be effective. Consider surveying your workforce to get their feedback on what capabilities they need.  Here are some suggested questions you can use:

  • How do they plan and track their work? (Give them a list of the tools they currently have to use. Then, ask if anything is missing. Determine if these tools fit the bill.)
  • How do they interact with their team and others? (Give them a list of communication methods + tools they currently have to use.  For example, “I use Skype to chat for 1-1 conversations, or I set up a Zoom meeting when it’s longer than 30 minutes”.  Also, find out if teams have agreed or determined how they will use these methods.)
  • What capabilities or tools would you like to have at your disposal? (Ask them to explain and provide exact tools, if they have specific ideas.)

Once you understand the answers to these questions, you can make informed decisions about the toolset your organization needs to be effective.

2. Tool Your Teams

Make sure your teams can access the tools that make sense for them. This means your company may have to purchase licensing or you may decide to leverage open software. Either way, consider some of our favorite tools and think about which make sense for your organization’s needs.

  • Slack – Team chat tools are great at helping members get quick responses from teammates, but also allowing the whole team to see a topic and be up to speed versus requiring multiple conversations over the phone or via email. Slack does this well because of its powerful search feature, making it easy to catch up on anything you might have missed. This does require licensing so there is a cost to implementing. A messaging tool is a minimum requirement for distributed teams.
  • Zoom – Video conferencing is a must and free is even better. Most companies’ networks allow the use of this tool, which is another reason this one in particular is so powerful.  The use of the free version is limited, so I encourage you to purchase the full licensed version since it is a great tool. It’s easy and intuitive to use, allows you to screen share, chat, have fun virtual backgrounds, and record your sessions.
  • Teams – If you’re tired of tracking down emails on various topics, clients, or projects, consider leveraging Teams to empower your workforce to have “teams” or channels, private or public, which are dedicated to certain topics or initiatives. Similar to Slack with chat and file-sharing capabilities, Teams also has many plug-in apps making collaboration more seamless.
  • MindMeister – Mind mapping software is great for team brainstorming and strategizing. Consider adding this tool to your repertoire for product-planning, problem-solving, outlining complex issues, etc. It can help delivery teams and execs alike. MindMeister offers a simplified free version but has an inexpensive annual fee for the full version.
  • Mural – This is a powerful application that is real-time, allowing multiple users to interact at once in brainstorming, creating diagrams, drawing, designing, and strategizing. This tool is great for teams embracing agility and design thinking.

Something to note, just because a tool is free doesn’t mean your team can access it. Make sure firewall and administrator restrictions are reviewed before telling your folks a tool is available to them.

3. Make Collaboration Effective with Guidelines

Anytime I launch a client engagement, I establish a Communication Plan up-front. Now, most readers will think, “I thought you said you were an Agilest? Communication Plans are old school.” True, but the validity of such a plan is especially important today – we just discussed various tools that are new and shiny and once introduced to your organization could cause a feeling of chaos. Guidelines are important.

When should you use [insert tool] vs. [insert tool]? Just because one team member plans to use Slack for every single communication, doesn’t mean the rest of his or her team will. So, make it simple by setting some guidelines up-front on the intentions of certain tools. Also, allow your teams to decide any guidelines they may need beyond the corporate standards. I am by no means condoning over-bureaucratizing the use of such tools, so please keep it simple for everyone’s sake.

Here are a couple of simple ideas to also consider:

  • Establish “Ways of Working” and team policies that outline exactly how team members are expected to interact daily, but this is a great exercise for leaders as well. Things you should consider: When, how, and what channels will be used to communicate? Will when you show one another your work? How will you collaborate on ideas? How will we know we are effectively communicating? How will you make decisions? How will you recognize one another? How will you handle conflict? How will you prioritize work?
  • Try having Virtual Coffee time. Ask teams to pick a timeframe every day that they will commit to being present and available so folks can stop in and talk to them. This concept not only encourages intra-team interaction, but also allows people leaders and even stakeholders access to talk with everyone. The idea is to allow folks to stop by to ask questions or even just have a friendly chat so that relationships can be built and there is more visibility to how teams are doing. Simply schedule a recurring Zoom session (or other video conferencing tool meeting) for 1-2 hours a day, invite the entire team and anyone that might want to visit.  Then, each team member attends the scheduled session with camera on and stays visible for that entire period. The team still works on their own during this period – they are just available if anyone needs them.

4. Lean on Experience to Drive Transformation

Now that your organization is communicating and collaborating regardless of where they are, you have already overcome a major and significant change by following the aforementioned steps. So, maybe moving forward in other transformative ways isn’t such a stretch after all.

To see effective change, transformation doesn’t have to start in an entire organizational vertical affecting 300+ people, it can be as small as a 5-person software development team.  What is crucial, is having support and guidance from experts that have been there many times before and have a lot of experience in avoiding pitfalls and jump-starting change.  Consider bringing in a few resources that can build your agile awareness, knowledge, and critical thinking, such as Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters. 

If you’ve already started the journey, but don’t know how to expand efforts to other parts of the organization, Enterprise Transformation Coaches can give you the insights you’re looking for and will assist you in building out the broader roadmap.

By working through these different steps you will already be starting to transform how your organization works together and interacts, improving visibility to all parts of the company, and setting in motion the groundwork to jumpstart your Agile journey, even with distributed teams.

1 Brenan, M. (2020, September 29). U.S. Workers Discovering Affinity for Remote Work. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/306695/workers-discovering-affinity-remote-work.aspx