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The Pandemic-Triggered Agile Paradigm Shift in “Co-location” of Teams

The Covid-19 pandemic had – and still has – a profound impact on how we work.

When the world noticed in March 2020 that this we are dealing with a global pandemic which shows no signs of going away on its own, businesses around the world, from small companies up to international mega-enterprises were faced with a sudden need for a major change in the way they functioned.

They had to either find a way to quickly adopt a remote working format for all or a large part of their workforce or run the risk of failing to stay operational during the lock-downs.

Those who were not able to do so, went through financial hardship and many of them fell apart and dissolved before the pandemic would come to an end.

Many others managed to pull through the needed rapid infrastructure and networking upgrades and provided their teams with a remote working (aka “WFH: Working-From-Home”) ability and then spend a significant amount of effort on making this non-physical working condition work.


Remote Working Reborn

Working remotely existed even before laptops and internet existed. Back in 1966, Jack Niles published a book titled as “The Telecommunications-Transportation Trade-off” which discussed the idea of enterprises moving parts of their business workforce to office locations outside the business commercial areas and put them closer to suburban residential areas to allow for shorter commute of back-office people and drop the cost of leasing their commercial space.

 In the 1990s with the rapid expansion of the Personal Computers and Internet, this idea got a new breath of life and many businesses even formed based on the remote working concept.

Enterprises started testing the new technology and formed remote teams which could work from their homes.

The introduction of Agile concepts in mid-1990s and its accelerated success across businesses through the 2000s, also supported and empowered the idea of having teams that can self-organize and need less micromanagement.

By 2010, the possibility of working from home during a few days of a working week was already considered a perk, used to attract talent.


The “rather unexpected” Pros of the Pandemic impact

According to a research by Harvey Nash and KPMG, 86% of IT leaders moved a significant part of their workforce to remote without expecting them to be all back in the office in the future.

Contrary to initial expectations, about 70% of businesses reported increased collaboration between business and IT teams as a result of remote working.

Nearly 50% of IT leaders believe that the pandemic permanently pushed their organization into accelerating their Digital Transformation plans with an unprecedented sense of urgency.

Among all these teams that were now forced to adopt a distributed / remote working model, the Agile teams not only were the most accustomed to a co-located structure but also were fully recommended by the Agile Principles to do so!

Coming from 15 years of Agile practice, assisting some of the Fortune 500’s major players adopt and embrace Agile concepts and form up their Value Streams around Customer-Centric value delivery pipelines, I would like to think that this became a true test of Agility for these teams.


Executive’s new Agile Leadership mandate

To weather and response to the shifting market, enterprises need a strong cultural leadership from the executive level that would follow – or at least consider - key Agile concepts that would help them align the organizations’ perspectives with the pandemic and post-pandemic challenges of their customers.

This leadership should raise the teams’ Agility in responding to their customers’ shifting needs with the speed that can effectively harvest the opportunities in their customers’ target markets, to sustain and support them in their market exploration and expansion.

One important caveat has been to avoid the easy path of initiating a technological transformation without a business goal.

 As Scaled Agile have taught us, Technology is no longer considered an enabler of business, but their closely cooperating partner in delivering value to the customers, and for the exact same reason they should not embark on a journey of their own without taking the business with them.

Executive management should provide the needed enterprise-level Agile leadership in forming incremental, short-cycled transformation steps, with certain “pulse-check” points on the road to check the progress of the transformation and health of the enterprise and perform a feedback collection to be used into re-alignment of the path towards a re-calibrated goal.


Agility saves the day … Again!

The Agile teams that I worked with during the Pandemic, and those I had line of sight into their status and quite a number of Agile teams that I have been aware of, managed to pull their weight through with an expected, yet still surprisingly smooth transition path.

Agile teams, based on their most important feature, which is their ability to quickly respond to change, moved fast to adopt their existing online team collaboration tools, especially the video and screen sharing conferencing softwares.

Over the past 15 years, this characteristic of Agile teams have enabled many small businesses to turn into serious competitors in the markets once monopolized by large enterprises.

Once the big players noticed how the aggregate effect of these small businesses carves away a big chunk of their profit, the same Agile teams became their salvation by giving them the needed flexibility to stay in their leading position in the market.

Agile teams were now back to save the day once again!

According to a recent analysis from McKinsey Digital, businesses that used to revise and implement their upgraded digital strategy every 1 to 3 years now had to push them through in a matter of days or weeks, and the only way to pull such a magical rabbit out of their hats was through Agile teams.

Fortunately, the presence of time-tested and well-developed Agile tools, serving the teams’ needs ranging from envisioning their roadmap, managing backlog items, visualizing progress via Scrum / Kanban boards, to provisioning a variety of metrics, helped the teams’ transition with minimum hick-ups or delays.

Even the slowest businesses in grasping the idea have learned that the post-pandemic world is where digital channels’ Agile teams are the primary mean of engaging their market. For some of them that would the only pathway still in play.

In order to achieve a fast and sustainable digital transformation, businesses used the urgency that was created by the crisis (as a result of the pandemic) to use shorter delivery cycles and break down the deliverable into multiple incremental steps as would be recommended by Agile methodology.

Agile teams also allowed for harvesting opportunities hidden in risks that would scare off traditionally run businesses. Their ability to quickly adapt to a shifting market and respond, collect feedback, and re-align their value delivery pipeline to the moving appetite of customers, allowed for a number of businesses to make more money in 2020 that any previous years.


The Remote Working Agile Team Setup is here to stay

Money has always been the key driver of businesses to sustain a new working model, or to move away from it.

According to a research by Harvey Nash and KPMG, businesses spent around $15 billion extra per week on technology during the first three moths of the pandemic.

After investing so much on strengthening their networking and VPN capacity, the organizations started to enjoy the sudden drop in employee overheads related to maintaining a functioning physical environment.

Suddenly millions of printers did not need any new toners or printing papers or any recurring service calls. Office kitchens did not need restocking coffee and condiments, neither did their office supplies cabinets.

With  no one using the facilities, the water bill dropped to near zero and the electricity bill to a minimum ever experienced. Nothing would break or need repairs. Even area cleaning was not needed as much as before.

As it became more and more obvious to businesses that their teams are capable of continuing to work remotely, there came the idea of moving out of their expensive commercial real-estates by walking away from their negotiations with the landlords on extending the lease on properties that were coming to the end of their contracts and seeking legal consultation on how to break out of their existing lease agreements.

That brought the idea of saving $billions across the commercial zones and downtown business areas by simply not renting anymore.

Receiving the shockwave from tenants’ walkaways, the commercial real-estate development projects slowed down, and many came to a halt as they suddenly faced a quickly diminishing prospect of selling or renting out what they were investing in to build.

The massive, sweet savings that started to make the bitterness of the pandemic’s economical impact more bearable, expanded into having more budget to sustain the existing teams that are in play and even hire more people to expand their operations.

The concept of remote-working also broadened the area in which organizations were searching for talent to hire. With commute time no longer being a real hurdle, they started looking for candidates that would be technically qualified, regardless of their geographical location.

As long as these new hires would be able to function within the core hours of business for the organization, they would be welcomed to the teams.

Surveys show that a large exodus is on the way among the employees who used to commute to work to leave the dense and costly metropolitan areas for the less populated and cheaper suburbs or small towns. This would make it nearly, or totally impossible for many of them to commute to their employers’ former office locations after the pandemic.

This expanded employment area added to even a larger distribution of Agile team members which would not find it possible to get back to a collocated team setup in the future. 

According to the research done by Harvey Nash and KPMG, 43% of digital leaders expect more that half of their employees to work from home after the pandemic. Another survey shows nearly 60% of teams have been more productive than pre-pandemic.


Some “Rough Edges” still need work to rectify

 Some employers started offering lower pay rates when targeting candidates in smaller towns and suburbs of the costly metropolitan areas. The lower pay rates, which would now bring them even more savings, are designed based on what is the expected living cost in the smaller towns. This would make the remote working model even more appealing.

After so many months of remote working, the majority of team members developed a new lifestyle and could hardly remember what it was like before the Pandemic lock-downs. Many adapted to the opportunity to be closer to the rest of their family members living in the same household while each working (or remote schooling) during the weekdays.

 The time and money saved on commute was used to pay off debt or to make a small saving for a rainy day. Many took online courses using the extra time that they could save from the commute.

Of course, the remote working culture had its draw backs as well. Since there was no rush hour traffic to get stuck in, the team could start earlier and stay longer. This led to more working hours than before (mostly without getting paid for the extra hours worked). It is also easier to find people you need to work with because they have no where else to be and even if they are in a meeting, they should still be able to respond to a chat request.

This also blurred the border between the personal time and working hours.

As we move through the tight economical times due to the pandemic, most employees are simply happy to still be employed and make an earning and cover their living costs, but when the pandemic is gone there will be a new forming period between employees and employers (which would pull in labor regulatory bodies) to draw the line between the life and work for a remote worker.

We should also consider those employees who loved their office life and had fun going for drinks after work and socializing with co-workers or in the commercial area they were working at.

Some other also have a very busy yet small home that has been under serious strain with everyone in the family remote working (or remote schooling) for several months now.

Some do not like the idea that they cannot hide from their co-workers or their boss anymore because everyone knows they can be found in front of their computer all the time.

Since enterprises rarely leave it to consensus from employees to decide whether they should let go of the savings of a century and get everyone back to their former locations, there is near zero chance of our old working models to ever come back to what it looked like less than a year ago.

With enterprises saving big and using the funds to expand into a much higher gear in their market sectors, the smaller businesses will also have no choice but to cut their costs following the same approach, hence not leaving a chance for a return to former working models.

Let’s not forget that change has already arrived and those business who can adapt quickly will have a higher chance of survival and even building momentum in a post-pandemic world.

Noteworthy is the fact that traditionally, not only Agile teams preferred “co-location” and working under the same roof, but also Agile had recommended that as a principle, so to save the global economy and thousands of businesses across the world, they transitioned from “co-located teams” to “co-located hearts and minds”!

Exclusive 💬

Arman Kamran

About author

Enterprise Agile Transformation Coach, CIO and Chief Data Scientist

Arman Kamran is an internationally recognized executive leader and enterprise transition coach in Scaled Agile Delivery of Customer-Centric Digital Products with over 20 years of experience in leading teams in private (Fortune 500) and public sectors in delivery of over $1 billion worth of solutions, through cultivating, coaching and training their in-house expertise on Lean/Agile/DevOps practices, leading them through their enterprise transformation, and raising the quality and predictability of their Product Delivery Pipelines.

Arman also serves as the Chief Technology Officer of Prima Recon Machine Intelligence, a global AI solutions software powerhouse with operations in US (Palo Alto, Silicon Valley), Canada (Toronto) and UK (Glasgow).

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