A May 23, 2021 article in the Wall Street Journal, ‘Bosses Still Aren’t Sure Remote Workers Have ‘Hustle’, painted a bleak picture of resistance by some senior managers to remote work. This is not surprising since senior managers have, by and large, learned methods that work for them early in their careers, probably two decades ago or longer.
But things have changed.
A colleague of mine who left the workforce in 1993 to raise a family and returned to work in 2010 commented on how silent it had become: In 1993 she remembered phones ringing all the time and constant chatter in the office, but in 2010 all she could hear was the clicking of keyboards. Communication norms change along with new technology, pandemic or not.
And who has not noticed how generation X communicates more through text than they do by phone?
Reed Hastings, the CEO and founder of Netflix, said that remote work is “a pure negative.” But when that comment was posted to the popular programmer forum Slashdot, the outpouring of negative responses was overwhelming.
One commenter wrote: [Hastings is] an extrovert, he needs attention, he needs people to entertain him; people like that are definitely struggling with WFH for sure, but if this has taught us anything, based on polling of the general public, it turns out that those people are a minority, and so most people will do better from this new normal and productivity will be up even if a minority like yourself and Reed Hastings can’t cope with it.
We can’t know what the workplace will look like a year from now, but it is clear that working remotely will be far more common. It will have been normalised; rather than the occasional exception, a large percent of office workers will work from home at least part of the time. There are several reasons for this:
- Organisations have figured out how to do it: They have put the systems in place, and have learned how to use them.
- The evidence is that productivity does not suffer.
- People have reevaluated their lifestyle choices, and are less ready to commute long distances or leave their community for a job.
- Many people have moved away, making it impossible for them to return in person.
- The cost benefits to organisations are enormous: if one’s employees do not live in San Francisco, one does not need to pay them as if they do.
- The availability of a global workforce makes a much larger pool of talent and range of skills available.
The last two reasons favour the employer, but they each have a flip side that benefits the employee: employees can live in less congested places that provide a healthier lifestyle and that also have a lower cost of living, and people now can potentially work for organisations anywhere in the world: that means that one could, for example, live in Malta and work for a company that is based in New York.
But what about agile? And even if people are productive working remotely, what about innovation?
Agile was wrong about face-to-face collaboration
Organisations today have embraced agility as a strategic imperative. For many, the Agile Manifesto is one of the sources of guidance on how to achieve agility. Yet, Agile philosophy strongly favours working with others in person. This manifests through the “Agile team room” and the preference for face-to-face communication.
But these preferences are not backed by any research or evidence: they are assumptions of those who crafted the original Agile ideas and the various practices that evolved from those ideas.
It turns out that collaboration in an Agile team room is actually less than in a more traditional setup.
According to a pair of studies described in the Royal Society Journal: Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70 per cent) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.
In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.
If such a core belief of Agile thought is wrong, then what else is wrong? It turns out, a lot.
The very core ideas have merit, but they have been interpreted in an extreme way, and beliefs and practices piled on top of the core ideas have largely been extremes that favour some personality types over others.
Agile 2 brings balance and maturity to core Agile ideas
The need to collaborate and the need to focus is one of the areas that needs balance. Instead of Agile’s rush to strongly promote collaboration, at the expense of all else, Agile 2 advocates providing space for people to think deeply without distraction—to get real work done—while also providing opportunities for them to collaborate in ways that work best for them.
Some people communicate best through talking, but others communicate best through writing. People are neurodiverse. Also, collaboration is not a point-in-time event: collaboration about complex issues is a process that occurs over time, and generally involves reading, writing, speaking, listening, and deep thought.
These all occur at different times. The Agile community has put extreme emphasis on speaking and listening, but has all but dismissed the importance of reading, writing, and deep thought. Agile 2 restores the balance among these things, and many others.
There is no basis for assuming that people working remotely will collaborate less than when they are together in person. In fact, a study by Microsoft has shown the reverse.
According to the study: Human connection matters a lot, and people find a way to get it…We’ve seen groups respond to recent behavioural shifts by normalising manager one-on-ones to help employees gain clarity and connection, combat the isolation of remote work, and reduce burnout.
Whether people collaborate well and are effective remotely depends partly on the work they do. For example, if one requires laboratory equipment to work, then working from home will not be effective; but if one’s job entails generating and absorbing information, then working remotely might actually increase one’s effectiveness, due to the increased control that one has over their personal work environment.
How does remote work impact innovation?
We have a modern preconception of what innovation looks like: that it is a group of people animatedly conversing, coming up with ideas together. But studies have shown that group brainstorming is not how the best ideas originate.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (p. 88) author Susan Cain goes into this in detail.
According to Cain: There’s only one problem with Osborn’s breakthrough idea: group brainstorming doesn’t actually work…The results were unambiguous. The men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group…
Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four.
Surely there are benefits to collaborating as a group: in a group you get to hear what others are thinking, and that spurs ideas of your own; and when in a group, there is an energy level that some people will not attain when thinking on their own. But not everyone is like that.
Some people’s thought process is stunted when there is a lot of activity going on. Using the terminology of Princeton psychologist and professor emeritus Daniel Kahneman, in a group discussion, your mind is forced into “System 1” mode, which is basically shallow thinking; but when alone, your mind can operate in “System 2” mode, which is much deeper thought.
Indeed, if we consider famous breakthrough ideas in extremely complex fields such as the sciences, they often were conceived when in isolation. Scientists collaborated a great deal with their colleagues, but often in writing, and only after long periods of isolated deep thought.
Innovation does not tend to happen during in-person collaboration. In-person collaboration is an important element, but the deep ideas needed for breakthrough innovation occur during deep thought when one is alone.
And that happens just fine when working from home. Collaboration is a necessary ingredient for innovation, but—for knowledge work—collaboration need not be in person, and it is not the central element: the central element is deep thought.
Preconceived notions about how people need to work need to be let go of. We need to open ourselves to new possibilities. We also need to have a more sophisticated view of agility: the simplistic views expounded by the Agile movement need to give way to the more mature and nuanced models expressed by Agile 2, particularly concerning how people collaborate best.
Remote work has challenges, but rather than reducing creativity and innovation, it might unleash it. Productivity does not suffer – as long as one’s job does not require physical assets that need to be in close proximity.
And there are enormous potential benefits from remote work, including cost benefits to lifestyle benefits. We need to let go of the past and embrace the future.
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