The agile team has gone home. Now what?

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Agile may be synonymous with software development, but it is equally about people. Because the purpose of agile sprints is to incorporate feedback at quick intervals to deliver what customers want. And the agile process itself works best with close collaboration between developer and stakeholder groups, also bringing together development and IT operations teams when used in conjunction with DevOps. So it is no surprise that there is a strong correlation between an enterprise’s growth and its agile capability: 6 of the top 7 agile levers by impact were people-related. (My team published some recent research on this.)

A core principle of agile transformation is to use face-to-face interaction, which went right out the window when the pandemic hit. However, the use of agile has actually increased over the past year while almost everyone around the world was working remotely. Reconciling these seemingly opposite shifts makes for an interesting challenge for enterprises. But it is not an impossible one.

Consider the following key agile levers, all impacting people dynamics:

Workforce and workspace levers

Using agile virtual workspaces along with digital collaboration platforms to support remote but collective and cohesive work has been a big driver of success. At my company, we conducted a study of our own employees right before and just into the pandemic, and it showed that when 3 or more early agile sprints were conducted on-premises with workers coming to the office, it paved the way for the asynchronous communication and remote work that followed. At the same time, using digitized visual Kanban dashboards along with other collaboration accelerators helped our remote teams make better decisions and operate as productively as they did when they were on-premises.

Culture levers

Autonomous and self-managed teams are able to focus better on value delivery, which improves customer experience and return on investment. Similarly, self-organized agile teams improve technology outcomes.

A hybrid working model can complicate this, though. When agile development goes from on-premises to remote – especially without warning as it did last year – the teams risk losing visibility of the status of different projects, their business and technical contexts, and even the pathways of communication. We found from our experience that enabling early, incremental feedback to remote teams helped them stay on track or correct course on time when needed. This also coordinated the efforts of developers working on different parts of the same module and gave them a shared sense of purpose.

Organization structure levers

Several enterprises have adopted agile processes and techniques outside the IT function, in areas such as business operations, human resources, sales, and even legal. This sets the stage for effective collaboration across functional boundaries. As we look at our employees, we see that cross-functional collaboration can be made to work even in a remote or hybrid work situation. When we increased the proportion of cross-skills in our remote teams by 15% to 20%, they became as productive as they were in office. While this experiment was confined to the IT function, there is every reason to believe that the results would be similar even when cross-skills across functional lines are combined. The skills need not always be available in-house; enterprises can even tap the gig economy quite effectively.

When it comes to applying agile principles to people in the hybrid work world, here are some questions to ponder:

  • Do you have enough digital visualization processes to help remote workers catch up with their on-prem peers?
  • Do you offer frequent, incremental, and early insights from feedback to remote working teams to help them stay tuned to the project’s vision?
  • Through the iterative cycles of agile learning and working, are you creating virtual safe spaces where the team can learn from its mistakes and table requests in the absence of impromptu interactions?
  • Too much collaboration can take away from productive individual work time. Is your work culture cognizant of this potential pitfall?
  • Are your teams buoyed by “feel good” spikes from socio-emotional cues as they work in the hybrid mode?

The bottom line

For enterprises with entrenched agile principles and practices, switching to a hybrid working model requires significant adjustment. But with the right adaptation of practices and some changes around technology tools and platforms, functional skills, and organization structure and culture, agile teams can perform comparably to how they used to when they worked in the office.

Alok Uniyal is VP & Head of the IT Process Consulting Practice at Infosys and specializes in helping organizations embrace new ways of working by leveraging lean, Agile, DevOps, and design thinking. He also spearheads the Agile and DevOps transformation within Infosys. (Twitter

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