Yes, of course we can, and in many ways, now we need to be more agile than ever as we try new approaches, learn and adapt how we work. However, let's address the co-location question and look at agile practices in remote work situations.
The Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles do not mention co-location. They do not say teams have to work together to be agile or effective. Instead, they say, "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation" and "Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project."
Face-to-face (F2F) and daily business collaboration are certainly easier to arrange if people are co-located. However, most agile teams already had some remote workers before work-from-home instructions. The Digital.AI (formerly VersionOne) 2020 14th Annual State of Agile Survey reports 81% of respondents use agile approaches with remote team members (typically not the whole team, but a subset is remote).
Why F2F and Remote Alternatives
So, how do we do F2F remotely? The answer is with video. Instead of debating if video is F2F, let's look at where the F2F agile recommendation came from in the first place. Alistair Cockburn, an Agile Manifesto signatory, developed a popular graph to show various forms and levels of communication effectiveness. Later, Scott Ambler expanded the graph to show types of modeling and added video conversations.
The goal of the chart was to show how interactive, F2F discussions are more efficient in terms of data transfer per minute than traditional paper documentation and allow for questions and answers to clarify understanding. They also convey emotion through tone of voice and body language, so are richer forms of communication. Here are the two graphs merged with F2F and video marked as points 1) and 2)…
We can see both F2F 1) and Video conversation 2) are in the top right quadrant of the graph indicating high effectiveness and high richness (emotional temperature). Video is slightly lower on the curve than F2F conversation, but still significantly higher than working via email or documents. The highest form is working together at a whiteboard, where we also bring the benefits of visual collaboration.
I suspect there was not a lot of data behind the exact positioning of these communication forms. Instead, it is a visual to help discuss a continuum of information transfer formats. One conclusion is that if F2F is not possible, then video conferencing is our next best option, and it still allows us to get a feel for people's temperament and emotion about a topic.
Other Agile Approaches
Rounding out our review of agile recommendations, the Scrum Guide does not mandate or even recommend co-location. It talks about teams working together to build a product. However, groups can work together on a product remotely. For instance, Jim could build the website while Rosa develops content. They are both working together on the product, just not physically together.
Extreme Programming (XP) includes the practice “Sit together” as one of its primary practices and notes “The more face time you have, the more humane and productive the project.” Remote teams fail to meet this practice recommendation and video face time is not the same as in-person face time. However, XP co-creator Kent Beck explains “sit together” is a goal and is not mandatory.
We should also remember when the agile principles were developed in 2001, video conferencing was not as straightforward or familiar as it is today. It was not until 2003 that Skype and other applications provided widely used and low-cost options for getting some face time.
The image below shows different team composition types. First, Type-1 teams are fully collocated. According to agile surveys, these are the minority. The majority of agile teams are Type-2, which have a core of co-located team members, but also some remote team members. Finally, Type-3 teams are all remote, with everyone contributing from their own workplace.
During the COVID-19 response, many organizations have gone from Type-1 or Type-2 quickly to Type-3 due to work-from-home mandates. This change has brought about technology and work challenges, but also highlighted opportunities for the future.
A common problem with Type-2 teams is that there can be a division or communications gap between core co-located and remote team members. Some information may, unconsciously, not get shared with remote team members. Going all remote, Type-3, is a great leveler. Now everyone is in the same boat, and the need to communicate broadly is highlighted and universal.
Lessons from Experienced All-Remote Organizations
Many organizations have been successfully using Type-3, all-remote structures, for years. They deliberately chose this format and believe it offers many advantages.
Organizations like Automattic who build products including WordPress and Tumblr, employ over 1,100 people in 75 countries using an all-remote strategy. GitLab, makers of the code repository and development tools, has 1,295 team members spread across 67 countries using their all-remote work practices.
Automattic uses agile approaches to build its products. It created its own distributed team project management product called P2, that it uses to organize, communicate and build community. It also embodies some key aspirational goals in the Automattic Creed. These include:
- Never stop learning
- Do not just work on things assigned
- There is no such thing as the status quo
- Never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague
- Communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company
The reference to oxygen in the communication concept is deliberate because too much oxygen can be fatal as well. As a group scales, it’s important to invest time from an editorial mindset making sure that the right information isn’t just published, but it’s heard and understood by those who need to.
GitLab also builds agile tools and uses agile approaches. It has a vast resource library about working remotely that any organization could learn a great deal from. Similar to the Agile Manifesto, Gitlab has its own published values and manifesto.
GitLab's six values are:
Inclusion & Belonging, Iteration
…that together spell the “CREDIT” given each other by assuming good intent. Their remote manifesto reads:
- Hiring and working from all over the world instead of from a central location
- Flexible working hours over set working hours
- Writing down and recording knowledge over verbal explanations
- Written down processes over on-the-job training
- Public sharing of information over need-to-know access
- Opening up every document for editing by anyone over top-down control of documents
- Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication
- The results of work over the hours put in
- Formal communication channels over informal communication channels
Items 3, 4 and 9 favor written communications over verbal. In a remote setting, this is preferable so people can consume it wherever and whenever they please. Yet it is at odds with the Agile Manifesto that favors F2F communications with its immediate feedback and richer bandwidth. However, these remote organizations have an ace up the sleeve that likely more than makes up for any communication penalties.
People over Process
Accessing the best talent is the saving grace for remote teams. There have been many studies and speculation about the productivity differences between average and best-in-class workers. Some reports claim 2X, 3X and even 5X differences in software developers, but I suspect the data is shaky at best. Yet some classes of problems can either be solved or not. Working longer for someone unable to solve a problem is not going to help.
The argument for remote agile teams is that the efficiency penalty from sliding down the Communications Effectiveness graph from F2F to videoconference or documentation is more than made up for by having the best possible people. Also, because “work from wherever and whenever you like” offers great flexibility, the best talent is attracted and retained.
Remote Work and Agile Values
There are many parallels between all-remote work structures and agile principles.
- Autonomy - For remote teams to function best, organizations adopt a results-oriented view of work. They trust their staff to work independently, collaborating and communicating as required to create the outcomes desired. They do not try to micro-manage or schedule tasks. Instead, they allow people to organize their work and operate with autonomy. This mindset closely mirrors “empowered teams” from agile approaches.
- Transparency – People are encouraged and expected to communicate widely and frequently. Automattic’s “Communicate as much as possible” and GitHub’s “Formal communication channels over informal communication channels” emphasize communication. These ideas map to the agile and Kanban concepts about making work visible and Scrum’s Transparency pillar.
- Challenge the Status Quo – People are expected to be curious and always looking for new markets and improvements. These concepts align well with the inspect and adapt ideas of retrospectives and continuous improvement in the agile mindset.
- Iterate – Working iteratively is one of Gitlab’s core values and a central theme of agile approaches.
- Valuing individuals – Recruiting globally and providing flexible work options, even if that means more written documentation, is an excellent example of living the agile value “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”
Remote teams can be agile. They do experience some disadvantages by not working together. All-remote, Type-3 organizations admit that onboarding can be a challenge, and communications take longer. However, access to the best talent, providing flexibility and autonomy offset these drawbacks.
When people value agile principles, they usually find a way to make it work no matter the circumstances. However, being agile is not the point; building an engaged, energetic workforce who support each other and create worthwhile outcomes is the real goal and measure of success.
Useful Remote Work Resources
- GitLab “GitLab’s Guide to All-Remote”
- Automattic “On Working Remotely”
- Stefan Walpers’ “Remote Agile Guide”