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InfoQ Homepage Articles Making Agile Work in Asynchronous and Hybrid Environments

Making Agile Work in Asynchronous and Hybrid Environments

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Key Takeaways

  • Face to face communication is important for agile teams, and this can be a challenge in hybrid environments
  • It is possible to maintain alignment without meetings
  • Technology plays an important role in hybrid work
  • Facilitation skills are key for any meeting host
  • Psychological safety is very important in remote and hybrid teams

Since its creation over two decades ago, Agile has become one of the most important disruptions in how software products are created. Agile’s emphasis on short development cycles and frequent iteration enabled developers to meet the accelerating market demands brought about by the digital transformation - especially in contrast to the planning-heavy waterfall methodologies that preceded it.

Agile ushered a major shift in thinking about product. As a result, the Agile Manifesto - conceived at a conference in Snowbird, Utah in 2001 - has become gospel in the field, literally carried from a mountain top as 12 commandments for teams to follow to deliver better projects faster. 

But the last two years of remote work and the transition to hybrid and distributed teams are testing the Manifesto’s resiliency. With one of the core tenets of Agile being “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation,” Agile’s future success depends on the ability of teams to share information effectively in hybrid and asynchronous work environments where face-to-face conversations aren’t always an option.

Fortunately, I believe that Agile is able to adapt to this new, hybrid era in the evolution of work. But it will require organizations to do some rethinking and retooling to communicate and collaborate across locations to keep the people-centricity that makes Agile work. Teams that succeed will reap the benefits of hybrid and asynchronous work for the long term, while still delivering products that delight customers.

Why is face-to-face communication so important to Agile?

If we want to understand how we can make Agile work within hybrid environments, it’s important to understand why face-to-face communication was deemed important enough to earn a spot on the Manifesto. My years of experience in leading product teams give me cause to believe that the need to convey clarity and empathy are the two biggest reasons.

Face-to-face communication is the best way to achieve clarity because it gives both parties the opportunity to ask questions, ensure understanding, talk through problems, and safely speak candidly about issues in a project. And if the conversation takes place around a whiteboard, illustrations and diagrams can quickly be drawn to provide context. Face-to-face communication has been surprisingly hard to recreate through virtual meetings, where technology allows just one speaker at a time and where lag and quality issues create an uncanny valley between attendees that often make these conversations feel unnatural.

Face-to-face communication also offers the ability to empathize with others more easily than virtual forms of communication. Much of our communication is nonverbal, and the intonation and body language we receive from others helps us interpret their feelings as we discuss projects and convey ideas. These nonverbal signals are especially valuable in comparison to communicating via messaging or email, where the intent behind the messages we send each other are often up to guesswork.

These two aspects of communication are important to Agile because of the emphasis it places on passionate teams addressing true problems for customers. So using Agile in Async and Hybrid teams requires extra effort to maintain clarity and empathy.

Async Agile requires passive alignment

Face-to-face conversations are an active means of maintaining alignment. In these stand-up sessions, teams come together to update each other and work through challenges in real-time. In asynchronous work where team members aren’t necessarily online at the same time, alignment must be achieved passively without the benefit of real-time conversations.

Documentation of decisions, changes, and planned outcomes is the key to making this work, but this is another area where teams can risk violating the rules of Agile, which favor investing our time in building working software over comprehensive documentation. 

In meeting rooms, whiteboards allow product teams to align with each other by mapping complex elements like user journeys and data flows with a few flicks of the wrist. But building alignment virtually requires long and detailed pages of text. These are difficult to produce and consume and may slow down work on both ends.

The ideal state for asynchronous teams is to remain aligned passively - or with little effort - eliminating the need for frequent meetings or lengthy documentation of the minutiae of every project. To pull this off, visual collaboration should be a key element of Agile management for teams that are working remotely and asynchronously. Visual collaboration brings the ease of alignment of the whiteboard into the digital workplace, giving developers a living artifact of project plans that can include diagrams, UX mockups, embedded videos, and other communication tools that can make async work nearly error-proof. 

Our team at Miro uses a variety of visual tools to manage our development, and many of these tools are available as free templates that other teams can use. The agile product roadmap helps prioritize work and shift tasks as priorities change. And the product launch board helps our team visually align design, development, and GtM teams as we come down to the wire on a new launch. The shared nature of these tools gives us confidence as we work.

Confidence is important in software development. Developers need to be able to write quality code without fear that they are plugging away in the wrong direction. When teams communicate visually on online whiteboards, they can replicate the clarity of face-to-face conversations so developers can work confidently, even when hours at a time may pass without speaking to their teammates.

Hybrid Agile requires inclusive meetings

In hybrid and distributed work, some team members are in an office and others are joining remotely. It’s different from asynchronous work because we make the assumption that hybrid teams are generally working the same hours, with location being the factor that separates them. 

While misalignment is the biggest threat to Agile in asynchronous work, hybrid presents a different challenge. Because work and specifically meetings are split between groups of in-office and virtual attendees, it’s important that the two groups feel they are on equal playing fields when it comes to participating in conversations, sharing ideas, and speaking up. But with hybrid work still a fairly new concept, most businesses still haven’t mastered designing hybrid meetings that are inclusive to all.

What a lot of businesses have yet to realize is that hybrid is a team effort and success requires support from across an organization. IT leaders need to put technology in place that serves as a bridge between in-person and virtual attendees, so they can participate in a shared environment during the meeting. Workspace designers need to think about how they can configure conference rooms to create visibility and equity for virtual attendees, for example by lowering displays, improving sound systems, and rearranging tables and chairs around cameras and microphones. 

Just as importantly, meeting hosts need to learn to think like facilitators to make meetings engaging and inclusive to both in-person and virtual meeting attendees. Facilitation is an art that takes a career to master, but there are some simple things anyone can do to run better meetings. For starters, design your agenda around activities rather than bullet points to force people to participate instead of just sitting back and listening. Start using a timer to move meetings forward, and sticking to allocated time for each agenda item. And include time in each meeting for silent sharing of ideas, questions, and concerns - asking people to type their thoughts rather than speak them. This will help everyone feel comfortable sharing, even if they aren’t comfortable speaking their thoughts out loud. These simple tips can help leaders source new ideas and keep meeting attendees engaged and be sure that all voices are included.

If teams can pull these shifts off, they can get the most out of their standups and recreate the open and safe atmosphere that makes Agile the best methodology for product development.

Non-traditional Agile teams require continuous team building

Timothy R. Clark recently wrote in HBR about the importance of psychological safety in Agile. I’d argue that for hybrid and asynchronous teams, it’s even more important. Because colleagues interact in-person less frequently, they don’t know each other’s nuances and may not have the benefit of assuming positive intent from direct and constructive feedback. 

To make a team or an organization Agile in these circumstances, team building needs to be prioritized from the moment a new hire joins a team and on an ongoing basis throughout projects.

While it sounds daunting, the good news is that by “team-building” I don’t necessarily mean high ropes courses or trips to the Go-Kart track. I just mean that we need to ensure our communication isn’t all business all the time. You can take simple steps like adding icebreakers to the start of your meetings, creating virtual water coolers for people to build personal relationships online. These simple investments can help your teams trust each other and feel greater passion and motivation for the shared work they are doing together.

Hybrid and distributed teams are here to stay

In the post-pandemic world of work, the days of collocated teams working normal 9-5 office hours are over for most organizations. This shift to remote and hybrid work shouldn’t be subtractive to your ability to execute.

In fact, these ways of working can help your organization recruit specialized talent from around the world, help you retain individuals who need flexibility in work hours, and keep your team innovating continuously across the world. If you invest in the culture, communication, and visual alignment practices that allow teams to collaborate from anywhere, Agile can continue to be the framework that brings your distributed team together and keeps them delivering new and innovative products faster.

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