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Cultivating an Agile Culture in a Virtual Environment

Bryan Campbell and Bhavik Modi
September, 2020

How will you maintain your Agile culture while everyone is remote and distributed?

Imagine a flashback in your digital life – the year is 2001. Netflix is still mailing DVDs, Google is just getting started, and Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook don’t exist. Only 50% of people in the United States have cell phones, and the iPhone is still six years away.

Woman on video call on laptop

At this time, 17 software developers met in Snowbird, Utah, to create what they called the Agile Manifesto, a set of values and principles outlining how organizations and teams can better work together to deliver business solutions. Since its advent, the Agile Manifesto’s principles have revolutionized the way people work and collaborate.

One such principle is co-location. While the benefits of teams working in the same location are numerous, from developing trust, to learning from “osmosis” (by hearing colleagues collaborating), to seeing shared progress, 2020 has forced leaders to revisit how to achieve these benefits without actually being in person.

The good news is that much has changed since the Manifesto was written.

How to Enable Virtual Co-Located Teams

The first value of the Agile Manifesto states “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.” However, remote Agile teams need both effective technology and tools to emulate a co-located experience. Fortunately, there are a number of options available today that are free or low cost. As a leader, it is important to ensure that your team has access to core enabling tools that facilitate work management, brainstorming, and ideation.

It’s likely your team interactions in a virtual environment are going to need some enhancements, particularly during this extended time of remote work. Here is what you should focus on first:

Virtual Agile Starter Kit

Create Your Agile Working Agreements

As teams shift to remote work, team members and companies will need to reconsider many of their working agreements. Team members will need to discuss how they want to engage using technology, such as expectations about responsiveness to messages and whether or not to always use video during video conferences.

This might mean considering whether companies provide budget for high-speed internet, efficient and ergonomically appropriate workspaces, and how to support employee childcare needs. For employees, it will likely be necessary to create some working agreements in your household on how to manage noise levels, interruptions, take breaks, and the frequency of your visits to the pantry.

Companies should also be reimagining their employee perks. Onsite gyms can become memberships to Peloton or Steezy, instead of onsite cafeterias, DoorDash or UberEats can offer alternatives. Companies can also start tracking the positive environmental impact of not having employees drive to work.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Agile also emphasizes creating a work environment that includes having fun as a way to keep teams engaged. Ice cream retrospectives, jigsaw puzzle areas, and plushy talking sticks were signature features of Silicon Valley’s Agile teams, but in today’s environment, how do you insert fun into a virtual team setting?

Try using easy to learn, team-oriented games accessible from phones, tablets, and computers such as one from Jackbox.tv. Another way to increase social interaction would be through a virtual pot luck with the team and encourage everyone to share what dish the prepared for the party. Another idea is a multi-player jigsaw game or creating a Guild in an online game like World of Warcraft. You can even invite a llama to a team meeting through Goat-to-Meeting and support a community farm. Encourage the team to offer their own ideas too.

Three Moves You Can Make Tomorrow

Agile can and will work in a virtually distributed environment. Here are three steps you can take to shift your team in this direction:

  1. Create your Agile technology stack: Check in with your team and make sure they have all the necessary tools to effectively work remotely. This means making sure your people not only have the right technology, but are also set up from an ergonomic perspective. Investing in keyboards, chairs, and lighting can create big returns in productivity for your people.
  2. Enable your team’s Working Agreements: Set aside time to create Working Agreements within the team on how you will engage with each other and technology. Be sure to set expectations on what you will be doing when and how frequently you will be doing it. Then, take these agreements and lead the charge on living these values.
  3. Lastly and most importantly don’t forget the fun! Invest in culture initiatives that make a difference for your people – whether it’s home exercise, meal delivery, or facilitated coworker bonding, ensure your culture remains intact and strong as you shift away from face-to-face.

The shift to remote working has already occurred in most organizations. But maintaining an Agile way of working while physically separated is a new challenge that organizations must face. Through the proper planning, communication, and working agreements, your organization can get ahead of the curve by maintaining your Agile way of working, even while virtual.

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