As longtime Agile developers, we feel compelled to share what we’ve learned about working remotely so far with fellow technology teams as well as the business world at large. We asked our employees to provide feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and to offer any other suggestions or thoughts. In this post, we share the good the bad and the ugly of remote versus traditional Agile development.
Our story is all too familiar. Back in mid-March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Intelliware decided to have all its teams, across all projects, practice physical distancing by working remotely, primarily from home. Like everyone else, we had the wellbeing of our employees, clients, families, and the community top of mind.
Fortunately, Intelliware’s infrastructure and systems enabled its teams to remain just as productive working from home. Except for the significant shift in mindset, we found the transition to working remotely almost seamless. We changed the way we do certain things, making process tweaks where needed, but not what we do. Our technical processes remained intact, unaffected by our new way of working.
The good: distributed remote Agile works
Until 2020, we have always advocated for a co-located staffing model over a distributed one. In a co-located model, groups of people in a single location collaborate in person, sharing project rooms with whiteboards. A dispersed model, in contrast, has team members working individually, from diverse locations.
COVID-19 forced us to switch from a company of co-located teams to dispersed remote workers. Given our bias in favour of co-location, we expected challenges and a productivity hit. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. If anything, the sudden need for physical distancing put us all in the same boat. We all had to learn how to work remotely and get things done. We are still organized as teams, even if we now work from home.
We still lean towards co-location, believing that nothing can replace or substitute the creative output of face-to-face interactions and human contact. But at the same time, we now see how the dispersed model can work as well as, and even be better than co-location, for some teams and for some activities.
We have also learned to communicate more intentionally and explicitly when working remotely. The reasoning and decisions once made implicitly in project rooms now gets written down and recorded more diligently.
The bad: loneliness, isolation, and work-life balance
Though software developers have a bit of a reputation for introversion, working in isolation can still prove difficult for some. Employees accustomed to using project rooms with other team members may find it challenging to stay motivated and engaged with other team members.
At Intelliware, our team members all worked together in co-located environments before COVID-19 and knew each other well, which we feel made our transition easier. Without the opportunity to get to know each other in person, a team of remote workers may find it challenging to reach a state of high performance.
As social animals, spending too much time in isolation may hurt us. This article about the negative effects of isolation references a Caltech experiment on rats. In the experiment, isolating the unlucky rats led to a chemical buildup in their brains that made them progressively more fearful and aggressive.
Does isolation have the same, or a similar, impact on humans? Maybe. Certainly, decision-makers, whether they lead technical teams or not, need to do more than just look out for signs of trouble. Every organization should take steps to stave off feelings of employee loneliness and isolation before they happen.
This is more than just an HR initiative or concern. Decision-makers need to make uniting employees, albeit virtually, a priority. Fortunately, a thoughtful combination of communication, technology, and methodology can keep everyone engaged and motivated.
Then there’s work-life balance. Many of us worked from home in the past, but how well? Working for hours on end with a laptop at a dining room table and a chair is not an ergonomically sound option for a workspace nor is it good for our bodies. These concerns, coupled with the fact that many of us also have kids at home, can make it difficult to feel productive.
What happens when you don’t feel productive? The natural inclination is to just keep working and overdo it. We have found introducing a new ritual helps. A new signal can force a wrap up, allow you to shut your computer down, and go do something else at the end of the day, like helping with the homework, going for a walk, or starting dinner.
The ugly: Remote system access and bandwidth issues
Many organizations have infrastructure in place, such as VPNs, to support staff working remotely. But few prepared for their entire organization to simultaneously shift to working from home. The unexpected and unprecedented shift has given rise to some ugly remote system access and bandwidth issues.
Consumer-grade connectivity and bandwidth has its limits. Not everyone has an Internet service capable of handling one or more parents and kids all using it at the same time for online meetings and classes plus e-mail, file sharing, social media and other day-to-day uses we tend to take for granted.
Also, outside of urban areas and in remote communities, the local service may have reached capacity or has been overloaded. Fortunately, Canada’s main telco companies have been busy upgrading home services over the past few weeks.
And lastly, connectivity to the office can prove challenging. As a technology company Intelliware had the systems and infrastructure in place to make our transition to working remotely. But how many companies sized their connectivity infrastructure to handle most or all their people working from home simultaneously? These systems take time to upgrade. Ensuring that services and connection get sized appropriately to work together effectively requires planning, procurement, and setup.
Now that we’ve shared the good, the bad, and the ugly of remote Agile development, let’s turn to remote Agile best practices you can adopt!