Working from Home - Agile Everywhere

This article assumes that you have a basic understanding of Agile Principles. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, take a moment to review a brief summary on Agile here.

Introduction

You are the CEO of a sizable IT company, and it is 7:00 am on a Monday morning. You start your day by checking on the status of things at the office. You laugh and scoff at the predictable batch of emails, text messages, and voicemails. Things like, "I will be working from home today", "WFH", or "I have an appointment at 11:00am, so I will be working from home for the rest of the day."

"Hah! Right! Working from home," you say, and you begin to question the practice of working from home.

  • "Are these people really working?"
  • "I'm the CEO, I can't work from home."
  • "If I can't work from home, neither should you."
  • "That must have been quite a party over the weekend!" (was it ever!)

On Meetings...

Do you love meetings?
Do you insist on meeting in a room, so you can see everyone's faces?
Do you consider video or teleconferences impersonal and unproductive?

Meetings are good. Seeing people and having face-to-face live interaction is good. Being in the same physical space is good. However, like many things (including Agile), meetings can become a thing that you serve, rather than a thing that serves you. Often, managers insist on an in-person meeting in order to boost productivity. They want to make sure that everyone is engaged, held accountable, and that they can see can each other's body language. By the time that in-person meeting ends, everyone should be on the same page.

I submit that this approach is an attempt to fixing a symptom, but does not the underlying problem. So, what is the problem, you ask? The problem runs deep, but here are a few key points to consider.

Unpreparedness

If you create a meeting with ten people titled "Touch Base", you're doing it wrong! Even if the meeting really is just a group of people touching base, there must be a set agenda. Break that meeting down and define a very clear and concise agenda. Note specific priorities on the invite and clearly indicate what you hope to accomplish in that meeting. What should be the takeaway? Every meeting should provide measurable value for those in attendance.

Meetings are Too Long

Most meetings should be thirty minutes or less, when possible. If there are signs that a meeting that is dragging or that the meeting is not purposeful, people will tune out. This is true regardless of whether you meet in person or via teleconference. The only difference is that on a teleconference, employees don't need to "put on a good face". If your meeting is not purposeful, short, and to the point - you may be losing your audience.
If your meeting agenda is too long to fit into thirty minutes, decompose it into multiple smaller meetings (each with their own sub-agenda). This will allow each smaller meeting to have a more focused and restricted scope, increasing the provided value for those in attendance. In addition, by having even a 10 minute break in between meetings, you will have a much easier job making sure that all your employees are engaged and attentive.

No Singular Driving Purpose

For any meeting on your calendar, you should be able to state the purpose and expected outcome of a meeting within a few short sentences. The same Agile principles that we follow when we are creating "stories", we can also apply to meetings. Ask yourself, "What is the minimum outcome I can achieve in this meeting that provides a value?" You can lean out your schedule, focus your team's efforts, and stop wasting time by focusing on the value that your meetings provide.

On Accountability...

What do you think of when holding employees accountable comes to mind? You want to make sure your employees are not slacking off, right? The problem is, unless you have expertise in their role, you don't really know what they do, so how should you measure their work? How do you know they are performing well? Furthermore, how do you figure all of this out if you can't see them working?

If someone does not want to work or be productive, they will be unproductive, whether at home or at work. In general, employees are very good at looking like they are working. Often, those who put on the best show are compensating for their general lack of productivity. The problem with this is that looking busy does not mean that you are busy.

Let's go back to Agile principles for a moment.

One of the goals of Agile is to constantly provide value for each unit of work completed (story, sprint, etc.). This tenant of Agile provides an implicit framework that you can use to hold people accountable. If your sprints fail to deliver or stories and tasks assigned to a particular person are consistently not getting done, then that is your cue to act.

The beauty of this Agile process is that you can detect, early and often, whether someone is not performing - simply based on the success of the stories that they have been assigned. More than likely, following this process will provide you insights much earlier than if you were trying to determine performance and productivity by observing employees in the office.

On Communication and Collaboration...

One big reason for resistance toward telecommuting is the notion that communication is compromised when employees are not colocated. While there are times that not being face-to-face can be detrimental, by and large this does not hold true.

If there is a need or consistent desire to meet and collaborate in the same space, this could be a sign that there is a lack of decomposition in your stories or tasks. Essentially, the scope of your stories are likely too big or do not provide adequate detail. Stories should be simple, well thought out, and detailed enough so that they can be completed with minimal communication, information gathering, or research (assuming the task itself is not a research task).

A good way to measure communication and collaboration progress is to set tangible, defined goals for your stories. A good starting point is to decompose all stories so that they should take no more than half a day to complete. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but in general you should have an agreed-upon target for average task length and create stories accordingly.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are a CEO, a manager, or a team lead, if you are following the Agile principles even reasonably well, it does not matter where your workers are located. I can personally testify to how liberating an experience it is to be trusted to be productive, rather than micro-managed. From an employee perspective, there is nothing better than knowing that management trusts you to do your job. From a management perspective, it is much easier to allow the Agile process to drive productivity and accountability, focusing on the important things rather than keeping a pulse on individuals.

Working in an office space may even be a detriment for certain companies. Many managers and workers that I know have found that they are more productive in a work-from-home environment. Each team member has the opportunity to work in their uniquely productive setting and everyone is held accountable for what they do, implicitly, through the Agile process. Without the overhead of an office space, employers are free to hire without geographical restrictions, can lower their operating expenditures, and can focus on promoting a happier and healthier work environment.

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