Working from home or another remote location is not a new concept. High-tech companies have been doing this over the last decade, and it was becoming increasingly popular even before the worldwide pandemic. Better technology, conductivity, and tools have enabled entire companies to shift to a hybrid workplace. They are doing this not just because it reduces cost but also because it helps employees have a balanced work-life by working where and when they want. This helps build better employee engagement and allows companies to pull from a larger talent pool.
Today, many companies are reimagining their workforce strategy to make hybrid work a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining employees. But, as attractive as that sounds, some companies and teams have found supporting near and far distributed teams challenging, leaving them wondering how a hybrid workplace can help achieve its benefits. Also, for Agile teams, is a hybrid workplace compatible with the workflow teams are trying to achieve, or does it help or hinder them from living up to the values and principles of Agile.
What is a Hybrid Workplace, Exactly?
A hybrid workplace is where employees work at home, at the office, or both. A hybrid workplace provides employees with the flexibility to work remotely or onsite. It uses a blend of physical and virtual workspaces that operate together to create a seamless work environment that operates simultaneously. Unlike the prior work-from-home or telework standards, hybrid workplaces are designed to be the norm of how people work versus it being an exception to existing in-person workplace policies.
In this type of meta office, employees can work from home or the office depending on their preferences or needs. There are many benefits to this type of setup, such as decreased costs and increased productivity. Benefits also include improved employee connections, higher engagement, and more diverse teams. Like any workplace, it’s not just the technology that’s used; the hybrid model also has its own workplace culture based heavily on flexibility, collaboration, and trust. All are helping to promote engagement and well-being for all employees.
Hybrid? But Agile Says Face-to-Face is Best?
At one point, in-person face-to-face communication was the most effective way to communicate. This was still very true back in 2001 when Agile was defined, and this is why it was essential to document that in the Agile principles. However, the state of technology back then lacked the conductivity or capabilities to make remote possible, leaving workers desk-bound. The hardwired phone, desktop system, and limited email were what we had. So Agile worked to collocate teams and promoted in-person face-to-face meetings whenever possible in its first decade of existence. But that was 20 years ago.
For me, sometime after 2014, face-to-face evolved beyond meaning that it had to be in-person. It was around that time when my company invested in several telepresence robots. These robots were remote-controlled wheeled systems that people could connect to, allowing them to move around and interact remotely with people within the building. It was a zoom meeting on wheels! Remote team members in Poland, Argentina, or other remote sites would join daily standups, have a 1:1 meeting, or even stop by a coworker’s office for a quick chat. It was truly transformative. It felt like those people were in the room with us. In addition to the robots, mobile devices and software, virtual whiteboards, and integrated HD webcams made it possible to communicate face-to-face even when we could not be in the same room.
So for Agile, with today’s technology, we are not going against the intent of how we framed effective communications. On the contrary, the technology has helped remove the impediment that most large multinational and distributed teams were dealing with when adopting Agile — we can now have everybody face-to-face regardless of where they are in the world. Furthermore, Agile helps to give the hybrid workplace a set of values and principles to help the hybrid work environment prosper.
Agile and the Hybrid Workplace
Agile works well in the hybrid workplace because it supports the idea of a flexible work environment. The core values of Agile help to build the needed collaboration, communication, and empathy which are all critical in maintaining a healthy hybrid workplace. Even with this, hybrid workplace implementations need to invest in collaborative technologies and adapt project flow due to the increased need for flexibility and mobility. There are five things that Agile (and non-Agile) teams should consider when doing hybrid work:
Invest in collaborative technologies: Agile teams need to accommodate team members who may work from anywhere and at any time: this can be done by ensuring that the technology and processes they use are helping to boost communication, collaboration, and ideation. This needs to be done in support of both near and far team members that may sit half a world apart and require the need for highly effective synchronous and asynchronous communications. The ability to access virtual workspaces such as video conferencing, meeting rooms, message boards, brainstorming tools, documents, and other tools outside the traditional office space is critical to enable employees to work together more effectively.
Refactor and build time zone friendly teams: One of the biggest challenges for hybrid work is managing time zones and communicating with team members. The issue becomes even more challenging when you have a global team. For example, if you live in California and work with someone in India, you will have a 16-hour difference in time zone. It sometimes becomes hard or impossible to collaborate when you consider the time difference. The best way to fix this problem is to assemble a team with people who live within three time zones of each other. This allows for an overlapping work schedule and will give the team members more time to collaborate.
Build empathy and empowerment: Though it may be difficult for people to work remotely, the best way to build a hybrid workforce is to build empathy between people. Empathy is a critical component of empowerment when it comes from being appreciated by management and coworkers. Working apart, we sometimes lack the serendipity of having lunch with a coworker or stopping by the boss's office for a quick chat. Those impromptu meetings in the physical workspace help us to gain a better understanding of our coworkers. They help us envision ourselves in another person's position, leading to better teamwork, connection, and empowerment. So we must work to create opportunities for empathetic interactions in a hybrid workplace. This includes having online social events, doing more work in groups than individually, and having more 1:1 conversations in support of a coworker's objectives.
Establish work-life boundaries: Zoom fatigue is one of the most talked-about topics today now that everybody is working remotely. With people jumping from one meeting to the next, it is no wonder why this is happening. Boundaries and personal time management go hand in hand. When setting up boundaries, teams and people alike need to agree on appropriate meeting times, durations of meetings, and working hours. Along with this, just like with onsite work, team members need to take breaks from their workstations regularly and go for a walk or stretch.
Inspect and adapt: Yes, this is already a core part of Agile, but it is critical to do this not just in your project work but in your organizational and team design. Make sure you and your team reflect and create solutions for working better in the hybrid environment.
Conclusion: Hybrid is the Paradigm
We have arrived at an exciting place. It is not uncommon now to join a team with people working hundreds or even thousands of miles from one another. All are working together face-to-face in a hybrid work environment and doing it well. It is practical, less expensive than in-person spaces, and helps build a more diverse team. This is why more and more companies are now opting for hybrid work moving forward. It is good that the Agile approach to work encompasses the values and methods to help shape the behaviors needed for a hybrid workplace to prosper.
What inspired me to publish this? The always great conversations with the Agile Alliance Supporting Agile Adoption workgroup! Thank you Jorgen Hesselberg, Hendrik Esser, Darja Smite, Jutta Eckstein, Jens Coldewey,John Buck, Eric Abelen, Bjarte Bogsnes, and Marcin Floryan for all you inspire in the Agile Alliance comunity.