Agile Goes Virtual

Virtual work has recently received a lot of attention for obvious reasons, but the truth is remote work has been hot the last few years. Check out this quote from HBR:

“Despite a few high-profile retreats from remote work policies in recent years, data on the U.S. workforce suggests that remote work is increasing. A 2017 Gallup poll reported that 43% of employed Americans had spent at least some time working remotely, and U.S. Census data released in 2018 reported 5.2% of U.S. workers being based entirely at home.” – Harvard Business Review, Aug 2019

Remote work is trending higher and benefits both employer and employee. Employers are able to attract talent from all over the world, and employees enjoy both the diversity of multinational teams and the flexibility that comes with working remotely.

So what should Agilists keep in mind while doing their job remotely, perhaps all-of-a-suddenly? How can you “read the room”? And what about Gemba walks? Alistair Cockburn has a graph that I’ve been using in my training for years, enumerating the benefits of co-location:

How can we as agilists – for whom “remote” has been kind of a dirty word – make remote work?

Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to work with Accenture Learning as their Agile Coach. During that time, while they’ve learned the ways of agile, I’ve been able to hone both my remote coaching skills and my knowledge of the training space. In this post I’ll share some of what I’ve learned.

But first, let’s take a tour of some of the comments on remote work I’ve gleaned from my peers at Accenture | SolutionsIQ.

Janel Lanza encourages people to spend time with their teams virtually, even more than usual. Which may prompt the question: “Do we need to revisit our work agreement for virtual purposes?”

Emila Breton gives this advice: “Keep it Short!!! Yes, that means more sessions, but there is much more energy expended by the learner online: avoiding all the distractions is hard [and] just sitting or standing in one place makes it hard. Video as much as possible: disembodied voices make connection and collaboration much harder.”

Micheal J. Tardiff offers these tips:

  1. Everyone in the same boat (doesn’t mix local attendees with networked attendees); creating two situations means that the temptation and tendency to treat one differently than another is great.
  2. Don’t try to copy what works when everyone is in the same room. Invent or use different exercises that are focused on small-group collaboration instead of large-group coordination.
  3. Have excellent connectivity: nothing loses attention more than poor-quality audio or video. Spend money to ensure that you have the closest equivalent to speaking one on one, one to many, and small groups to small groups. Have good headsets or microphones – rarely are built-in PC mics up to the task.
  4. Iterate and learn. Just as in classroom workshops, some particular skills and aptitudes are necessary to learn, [that are] not innate, and this goes for participants along with facilitators/trainers.

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Tips Based on My Own Experience

During my eighteen months of coaching and consulting at Accenture Learning, I’ve realized that remote agile looks different than “regular” agile, and that’s okay. Agilists can find ways to bring value to their organizations or clients if they continually experiment with what works in their location.

In a way, I had an unfair advantage: Accenture Learning is an experienced organization in extreme remote work. Almost everyone works from home, enabling maximum time-zone flexibility. My colleagues in Accenture Learning are patient with technology issues and adaptive in their approach to remote learning, so they were naturals when it came to remote agility.

Consultants learn from their clients and Accenture Learning is no different. Relevant to this discussion, I’ve learned the concept of durable learning – tools and techniques to make training, remote or otherwise, stick:

Durable Learning Tips:

  1. Relevant – Training is at the right time.
  2. Engaging – The experience gets and keeps the learner’s attention.
  3. Contextual – Instruction includes the big picture, connects to existing knowledge.
  4. Effortful – Challenging the learner demands emotional investment and thus makes it durable.
  5. Generative – Learner reflects and elaborates in their own words
  6. Social – Opportunity to engage at the group level solidifies learning.
  7. Practice – Learning is varied by interleaving activities and exercises, i.e., not death by slides.
  8. Spaced – Distributed over time, requires retrieval.

More ways to get more value out of virtual work

Make it Interactive: While driving into each of these principles is beyond the scope of this article, it’s essential to modify the training for the format of online training, which for me, means multimodal. I engaged guest speakers in my events, folks who had domain knowledge. I leveraged pop-quizzes in PowerPoint or Mentimeter, the latter being an excellent way to gamify learner feedback in real-time.

Make it Fun: I created a fictional case study and executed each week of training as a different episode of the narrative. The narrative was designed to be compelling and give us a common discussion point. I released an episode each week to emphasize that week’s teaching. This reading also became part of the homework. By spacing the work, the opportunity for review, and understanding increased.

Make it Real: I introduced real work into the course as soon as possible. The team was working on their agreements, role definitions, and backlog creation before the training was over. I built into each session a review of the homework, the case study, and the previous session. This repetition and practice assisted teams in establishing a solid understanding of Agile.

Conclusion

Current collaboration tools have advanced significantly. Zoom, Slack, Teams are all effective, and Agile Lifecycle Management tools such as Jira, VersionOne, and Rally are outstanding. However, these tools are proxies for being there. Even online video is lacking. People act differently on camera, so the non-verbal clues are missed.

To address these shortfalls, we’re coordinating the development of virtual reality experiences and applications that will bring training and coaching remotely ever closer to that ideal of co-location.

If you’re interested in finding out how you can collaborate more effectively remotely, or have ideas to contribute, please comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@agilejoe1) or LinkedIn (JoeFec).


Hear more about Joe Fecarotta’s remote coaching experience in our blog “Agile Goes Virtual”

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