Despite some early hiccups in the 1990s and early 2000s, chronicled in a June 2020 New York Times story as “The Long, Unhappy History of Working from Home,” most people realize that remote work has been successful during the past pandemic year, saving numerous businesses and countless jobs.
But they may not realize that the success has been uneven, with survey data showing that “companies that had deployed at least two agile practices were 40% more likely to report an increase in productivity among remote teams” than non-agile companies.
This is an important lesson as organisations look to the future of work, where more and more employees—and teams—will be working remotely or on hybrid schedules, splitting their time between home and office.
The “agile” revolution, as you probably know, began with software development—long before we ever heard of Covid-19. Agile’s value was undeniable, but people got sick of it, since the term was overused and misinterpreted by many leaders and organizations, who embraced agile terminology but not its core attributes.
Several of my BCG colleagues review those attributes in a Web article, “How to Get Agile Right,” calling it “a team-centered, iterative, and cross-functional approach” to operations that “prioritizes speed, autonomy and collaboration.” For agile leaders, they write, “the most important job is to define the desired outcome clearly and give teams the autonomy to achieve that outcome.” Habit Action, a London-based company that designs and builds ‘intelligent office spaces,’ adds a further note, saying agile working is “working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” All of the above are important.
When Covid-19 hit, agile teams typically were ready. The scaffolding, or conventions, of agile work—autonomy, collaboration, co-location, “daily stand-ups,” rapid decision-making, etc.—already were in place, so agile teams were able to pivot quickly to crisis mode, establish new work protocols, reprioritize backlog and help others. All of which they did—and did well.
In the process, we learned something very important: that agile teams could be successful even when team members were collaborating remotely, rather than in person, so long as everyone was in the same virtual “room” and continued to do all the things they were doing—communicating, collaborating, and iterating—when they were face-to-face.
Non-agile teams typically didn’t have these conventions and work habits. They didn’t always have a common view of what the priorities were and how the priorities would change from day to day (sometimes from hour to hour); they didn’t always have the daily ways to align on progress, issues and resolutions; and in many cases, they didn’t even have a culture of teamwork.
So, what happens when we go back?
Going back, of course, is the open question: Nobody knows who, or how many, will “go back” to the way things were pre-Covid when we’re given the green light to do so.
My guess, backed up by reams of data from a variety of reliable sources, including BCG’s ongoing Covid-19 Employee Sentiment Survey, is that many people won’t return full-time to the 5-day-a-week daily commute to the office routine. They’ll choose, with their employers’ blessings, to work hybrid: coming into the office on some days; working from elsewhere on other days. (With WiFi, that could be almost anywhere.)
This is why agile is so essential. And why it was eye-opening to see how well agile teams functioned even when they weren’t physically in the same room— when, instead, meetings apps such as Zoom, WebEx and Slack were used to situate everyone in the same “virtual room.”
The long-term success of hybrid work, I’m convinced, will be an “all or none-at-all” approach.
Hybrid work won’t work if the people with whom you need to collaborate are in the office on days you’re out. Hybrid work also won’t work when some team members are in the room and some are dialing in. Those dialing in won’t get the same feedback: the affirmative nods or the bored finger-tapping and skeptical eye-rolling that you’d see if you’re sitting in the room with others. That will put the “absentees” at a disadvantage.
Finally, hybrid work won’t work if senior leaders and senior managers routinely are coming in to the office, because everyone else will feel pressure to be where the bosses are. After all, they’re the organization’s standard-bearers.
In other words, there will be a lot of pressure—both intended and unintentional—for everyone to return to the office.
Agile is a large part of the solution. True agile teams are cross-functional and enjoy a great deal of autonomy. So on days when they decide to co-locate remotely, little, if anything, should pull them back into the office. The functions with which they need to interact already are embedded in their teams. They are empowered and judged on their achievements or production, so there’s no need to huddle with senior leaders. (In fact, agile leaders will see them where they are—in their digital workspaces—if they want to know what’s going on.)
How this story will end will depend, of course, on strong, confident leadership. As my friend and colleague Martin Danoesastro has observed, agile is a means to an end. It’s up to leadership, especially in these times of distraction, when teams are physically separated, to define that end: providing the “common vision to work toward” and making sure everyone concretely understands what’s expected of them. Then, set them loose.
If hybrid work is the future, and I believe it is, agile is the key to that future.
About The Author
Deborah Lovich is the Managing Director & Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group and lead BCG’s People Strategy topic globally. Since joining BCG in 1994, Deborah learned that the most important (and challenging) lever for change is people. Deborah works with companies across the global economy on leadership enablement and culture change; HR issues along the entire employee life-cycle; and digital upskilling to unlock new sources of speed, productivity, value delivery, engagement, and impact. Deborah applied her practice inside BCG to create and scale a program.
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