When the agile movement first began, one of the founding principles was ‘face-to-face’ communication, according to Stacey Ackerman, an agile expert and founder of Agilify, an agile training and services company.
“There were some agilists who said if people aren’t co-located, their not agile,” said Ackerman, “In 2020, almost every company I’ve worked with has had to adapt to remote collaboration, whether it’s everyone on the team, or part of the team.”
Many companies were already on the remote work bandwagon long before the coronavirus outbreak. Now that remote work is not just an option, but a mandatory policy for many, some MOPs teams are having to learn on the fly how to keep their agile practices in place while the team works from home.
Priority #1: Keep lines of communication open
“Communication always has to be open with a remote team,” said McGraw-Hill Marketing Operations Manager Chelsea Kiko, who has managed both fully remote teams and teams that have been split with some employees working remotely and some in an office, “We always stay available and accessible on Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc. so it is similar to just stopping by someone’s cube to have a quick chat.”
Ackerman says it’s important for agile teams to be able to connect together at all times of their agreed-upon working day, just like they would be able to swing by a co-worker’s desk in the office. One MOPS team leader for a financial services organization said, for newly remote teams, it’s important to keep standing meetings and checkpoints as you roll out new processes. One challenge she has faced leading a remote team is a lack of communication and not knowing all the requests that may be coming into individual team members. “It is really hard to understand how the team is feeling — motivated or unmotivated — as you are not seeing them and may not be able to accurately gauge how they are doing.”
Paul Wilson, director of marketing automation technology at Adobe, has taken special efforts to give his staff a chance to have non-work related conversations via video conferences.
“We’ve set up twice a week COVID Coffee Calls (19 minutes long) where we all have our cameras on, and work topics are avoided,” said Wilson, “Everyone shares the challenges they’re facing, and some funny stories they have from their adventures working from home.”
Julz James, director of marketing operations for Appirio, echoes the need for teams to stay in contact even if they’re not in the same office building.
“The one benefit of working together in an office is that you can just get up and go speak to the person you need, or you can catch up over a coffee break,” said James, “Working remote makes it much harder.”
She says it’s important to let your team know that they shouldn’t be worried about sending constant messages on whatever communication channel you’re using. “I’d rather have lots of chats from my team than have radio silence.”
The right tools make a big difference
As many MOPs leaders are learning, having to switch your entire team to remote work with little preparation has its obstacles. The good news? There is no shortage of communication and work management tools to keep your agile practices in place.
“The first thing teams should do is make sure everyone has a working camera,” said Ackerman, “It’s a simple, easy step that everyone can do to simulate face-to-face experience. I’ve seen teams trying to work with cameras off and it’s too easy for people to check out or multitask. Being able to read people’s expressions and have a true conversation is absolutely imperative.”
Most all conferencing tools have user-friendly video capabilities. For project management, many MOPs teams rely on platforms like Jira, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Asana, Sharepoint and Confluence. Kiko said her company uses a collection of tools.
“Developers work well in Jira, so most of our dev pieces live there,” said Kiko, “Others like Asana because it is user friendly — so other projects live there. It really depends on our audience because of the vast different types of roles we work with.”
Wilson’s team relies on Slack and Microsoft Teams for ad hoc communications. He said his company also uses BlueJeans, a video conferencing platform, for face-to-face online meetings.
“We rely heavily on these technologies for collaborating. One key point we encourage is to try to resist the urge to take a discussion into a DM in our chat platforms,” said Wilson, “When discussions ‘go underground’ you potentially lose important inputs from others on the team.”
James’ team uses Microsoft Teams for chat, video conferencing, email and texts and Asana for project management.
“In Teams — which is the main communication channel — we have different teams set up, channels for fun and business and then just normal chats,” said James. Her company uses Asana to make sure the group remains agile, “We all have visibility into each other’s projects and can work together where needed, or take work off someone’s list. Another advantage of using a project management tool is that if due dates need to be adjusted, then it can be done across the whole project to ensure that the project stays on track whilst also ensuring that SLAs [service level agreements] aren’t being pushed.”
When it comes to agile, it’s all about process
For James, the biggest challenge she has faced trying to keep her team agile while working remotely is ensuring the workload is spread evenly and that everyone is getting the help they need when they need it.
“We might be waiting for feedback on emails for a campaign, final proofs for content, or a send list from all the various sources that we serve. Sometimes a project needs a quick call, text or chat with the stakeholder to make sure expectations are set — if assets or content are delayed, it will also delay our SLAs,” said James, “I never want my team to be stuck looking at a challenge or problem and not know where to turn for help. I encourage questions, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the person or documentation that does.”
Ackerman recommends agile teams put a working agreement in place to outline how the team will operate, from the tools that will be used to communicate to when team members will be available online.
“Now is a great time to write or update one,” said Ackerman, “This is not about managers making policy — it’s about a self-organized team collaborating and holding each other accountable.”
Unprecedented times come with unprecedented challenges
“The outbreak has changed what I am doing slightly, but more because I’m focusing on ensuring everyone is staying healthy, following all the recommended guidelines for their locations, checking in more regularly and letting them know I’m here if they need anything,” said James.
She and Wilson both are giving their team members latitude to prioritize family needs. James said working hours are being adjusted due to children being home from school. Wilson acknowledges it is impossible right now to always know what is going on with your team because current situations are ever-changing.
“I trust my team to maintain their own balance,” said Wilson, “I encourage them to let me know if there are any allowances they need.”
Kiko said her team is committed to doing whatever they can to get through current conditions together, as a family.
“I am way more flexible right now knowing members are working with more anxiety, depression, with kids, with spouses,” said Kiko, “I’m not saying everyone has more anxiety and depression now, but mental health is certainly important and this is such an uneasy time for many.”