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Remote Working, an Iterative Journey Towards our New Norm

Remote Working, an Iterative Journey Towards our New Norm

“It’s hard to not see 20% to 40% of our workforce be remote.” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Marketwatch

McKinsey’s recent recommendation to accelerate the transition to agility comes on the heels of big tech companies announcing that they expect about 50% of their workforce will be operating remotely by sometime in 2021.

This implies 3 fundamental things:

  1. Remote work is here to stay and will grow quickly
  2. We are moving towards a traditional/remote hybrid
  3. Workers will be required to continually adapt (now more than ever workers will need to leverage both sides of their brains. Both the rational and emotional will be critical in adapting to the continued disruption, anxiety and fear we will face with the coming waves of viral infection with COVID possibly being the first of many.)

“I was pretty wrong about this. I thought productivity was going to plunge, but it has been very good,” Okta CEO Todd McKinnon, Marketwatch.

So far larger tech firms report that the transition to remote work has gone relatively well, even “better than we ever would have imagined.” Discovery CPCO Adria Alpert Romm, WSJ and are anticipating good enough short-term stability “we can sustain productivity to a very high degree with people working from home.” Microsoft President Brad Smith, Washington Post, with high numbers to back up their collective gut feelings: “U.S. workers were 47% more productive in March and April than in the same two months a year ago through cloud-based business tools, chat applications and email, according to an analysis of 100 million data points from 30,000 Americans.“ Prodoscore, Marketwatch, as well as anticipated changes resulting in generous environmental, legal and operational cost reductions “Save companies billions of dollars … greatly reduce traffic and liability related to sick employees; and enhance productivity from a workforce that eats, sleeps and lives at its diffuse, de facto offices.“ Marketwatch

This seemingly easy — even desirable — transition begs the question, how sustainable is remote working long term and what issues can we foresee coming up in the short and medium-term?

Tech giants have begun raising flags when it comes to building remote cultures and ensuring efficient operations for a remote workforce. “Facebook will need to replicate some of the softer aspects of workplace culture: social bond building, culture, creativity, whiteboarding and brainstorming — that is kind of more ad hoc, the technology tools we have today for them are not as developed — videoconferencing is fairly transactional.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, WSJ.

And businesses from outside of tech industries — which are just as affected and likely less-than-ideally equipped for a transition to remote working conditions are weighing in as well “Companies will have to find ways to build culture remotely, which is really tough to do.” Managing Partner Loup Ventures Gene Munster, WSJ.

In 2018, I wrote an article titled Agile: An Operating Model for Decentralized Organizations. It’s even more clear today “The shift will require new techniques and tools to compensate for the loss of in-person office interactions…” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, WSJ, I propose that Agile is the single most effective tool we have as we continue to iterate towards the new normal of remote work.

Agile for building remote cultures

“There has been a hit on productivity from groups not being able to meet together spontaneously and solve problems,” Polaris Chief Executive Scott Wine, WSJ

Agile methodology institutes a specific work rhythm — a cadence of workflow for remote teams which, in its fundamental form, was often a hybrid between remote and traditional work environments.

Agile teams meet in-person for several days at the beginning of a sprint for critical, complex planning, brainstorming and overall team bonding. After their backlog of work is planned for the next several weeks, they return to their own offices/homes for the duration of the sprint. Once this is completed the team gathers again to review completed work, reflect on learnings and plan a new backlog for the next sprint. This cadence is repeated until the team has gotten to know each other and established working relationships with open lines of communication.

Since “People are still going to want to be social, people are still going to want a whiteboard to brainstorm together to solve problems.” Salesforce CPO Brent Hyder, WSJ, the cadence native to Agile will continue to address the need for whiteboarding, creativity, and brainstorming highlighted by tech giants.

Outside of providing a more efficient way to do team work, brainstorming, and solve complex problems these Agile in-person meetings are also an opportunity to ‘meet at the water cooler’ for informal time and social bonding and inherently address the “nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ circa January 2020, when it was easy to bump into people at the coffee room.“ Next Normal McKinsey.

After an Agile team has developed strong working relationships, companies can opt to have their teams do plannings, brainstormings, and conduct learnings remotely or continue to meet in person on their established cadence. Some major players have already hinted that they may “rent a flexible working space for perhaps one or two days a week in the future so employees could physically come together.” Skift CEO Rafat Ali, WSJ while others might repurpose all together and “make the office more of a hotel.” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Marketwatch.

Agile leadership structure is decentralized so teams can handle most day-to-day decisions while senior leaders handle big-ticket items. This flatter structure is purpose-built for the distributed nature of remote working: It results in faster and more flexible decision making than traditional organisational structures and generates more empowered teams with quick execution when information is limited.

“We used to have all these meetings, there would be people from different functions, all defending their territory. We’d spend two hours together, and nothing got decided. Now, all of those have been cancelled—and things didn’t fall apart. Instead, the company put together teams to deal with COVID-19-related problems. Operating with a defined mission, a sense of urgency, and only the necessary personnel at the table, people set aside the turf battles and moved quickly to solve problems, relying on expertise rather than rank.” McKinsey.

Maintaining and building a company culture isn’t easy when workers are all physically in the same building. With a distributed and remote workforce it becomes more difficult and critical to get right, but Agile also is uniquely adept at onboarding new members and creating long lasting team bonds. Below are some of the hacks my co-workers and I learned helping lead a remote-first working culture at Consensys.

Hack your remote meetings (and why you can’t skip the facilitator):

Remember that 2 hour go-nowhere meeting from 2 paragraphs ago? It can, and will come back, without help.

A facilitator will steer the meeting towards its goal, keep the meeting on agenda and adjust discussions according to the established schedule. The most important part of the role is that they are responsible for the commitment to move forward. They determine who does what, when and how, and establish — as well as are accountable for — the follow-up procedures required to reach the intended goal.

Being a good facilitator requires excellent listening, mirroring and validation skills to confirm agreements. Not everyone has these skills. The facilitator is also that person who will notice when someone has checked out (ever heard of Zoom burnout? It’s when people join an online meeting but only pretend to listen for the duration of the meeting. It’s very easy to “attend a meeting” without paying attention on Zoom.)

In a remote culture, a separate role for an unbiased meeting facilitator is critical.

Tips for a productive meeting:

  • Prepare for the meeting beforehand
  • Have a clear purpose in mind and define meeting goals 
  • Develop a clear timeboxed agenda and share it with all the participants before the meeting
  • Follow the process set by your agenda
  • Track decisions and action items real-time on a shared screen viewable by all meeting participants
  • Confirm decisions and who’s doing what next before concluding the meeting 
  • For meetings above 7 people, use 2 facilitators

Hack your remote teamwork (and how to avoid Zoom burnout):

“The point is that the team is in the “room” together and available for collaboration during a certain time. This also synchronizes remote team members distributed across time zones.” Mary Gribbin, Consensys

Working as a remote team can be tricky. With everyone individually working from home, it can be difficult to have an impromptu work session when a complex problem emerges that requires multiple people to discuss realtime in order to unblock individuals so they can continue to work on their own.

In this case, my colleagues and I have found it useful to block out dedicated time for the team to do work together, while working individually. This might seem contradictory so I will break it down:

  1. Block out a dedicated off-camera work session lasting anywhere from a 1 to 2.5 hours
  2. Use a business meeting app, but make sure to turn off audio and video
  3. Use chat to talk or to ask quick questions to the team member(s) you need help from
  4. If a complex problem emerges, gather needed team members via chat and create an additional “breakout room” to discuss using audio and video. Once the roadblock has been resolved, turn off audio and video and rejoin the main team worksession
  5. 10 minutes before the conclusion of the meeting, invite all participants to turn on audio and video and confirm that the goal was accomplished before ending the work session 
  6. Record completed items and schedule a follow-up worksession as needed

There is more to remote than organizational issues

“And then there is the toll on workers, many of whom feel increasingly isolated and stressed, worried about the security of their jobs even as they log long shifts at home.“ Marketwatch

In this new paradigm shattering world, Agile methodology is the way to a new hybrid between traditional and remote work, and while we can all share our experiences and refine best practices for keeping teams running efficiently in a remote setting, there is still one critical aspect that needs to be kept front and center: human mental and emotional health.

Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 of this article which will illustrate how Agile can effectively treat the transition to remote work as a project centered on the needs of your remote workforce and mitigate some of the negative mental and emotional aspects generated by remote working conditions.

If Agile seems like the solution for you but it feels out of reach or you don’t know where to start, drop me a line here.

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