The “Return to the office”​ in an agile world

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

“Return to the office”, “Stay Remote” or even “Change to mobile work” conversations are on our feeds now, it is a thing today, and people and organizations are struggling to find the best practice they could use for their teams.

From 2017 to March 2020, the way of work for all our agile teams was always, all week long on our offices that we design for agile collaboration… On March 16th, 2020 (after some testing of our remote capabilities) we communicated to our teams that we were going fully remote due to COVID restrictions and our own strategy to protect and develop our own team members, and that was the case till March.

The Agile Dojo for Citibanamex is formed by agile coaches, agilists and members of our talent programs. they work daily with our business capabilities and leagues (our team of teams) some of them with more than 300 people on multiple teams. Until March 31st I had not met in person some of them.

After more than two years of working fully remote we had a chance to have a couple of sessions with some team members to discuss our year, the objectives and ideas to refine our way of work and continue our journey to increase value to our customers. And I have to say, that in-person interactions are, simply put… Powerful! Even with the support of tooling that enable remote work (more on that later) in-person interactions on certain scenarios could be much more effective than remote interactions.

Face to face conversation

One of the agile principles is:

“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Note that the principle does not state: “in-person” or “in-site”, indeed, if the world has learned something of the pandemic, among many other things, is that remote collaboration is not only possible, but in some cases preferable. There are costs associated to enable in-person collaboration, the easiest one to spot is commute, not in vain “Motion” is one of the wastes that Lean recognizes. These tools that we as agilists do not value over individuals and their interactions, help a lot to make the interactions possible, they enable face-to-face conversation, without having to pay the costs associated to in-person collaboration.

(Kanban Simulation, with many alternatives to do it online)

But remote collaboration has its costs, and as always, it depends… it always depends… as context is queen on our constant journey for adaptability. Just with some empirical evidence after we started remote work, we observed that teams that had some time working together had better flow, while new teams, the ones formed while on lockdown had (in general) some struggles to form and collaborate together, with more impediments to their flow and longer “ramp up”.

The office (and its use) in an agile world

Not two companies are the same, not even in the same sector. Their DNA, their culture although created by it’s founder(s) and guided by it’s leaders is changed and shaped every day by the energy created by their individuals interacting with each other, and those people are unique human beings, so the culture will be unique, as the environment of that company is unique. Fully Remote? Hybrid? How hybrid? there might not be a single answer, as what could work for some will not for another… So in the spirit of avoiding magical-cookie-cutter-silver-bullet approaches the best path to action might be inspired on an agile idea, specifically on The systems thinking approach to introducing Kanban from 9 years ago by @David J. Anderson with a groups of iterative (not necessarily sequential) steps adapted for the idea of using (or not) the office as a flow enabler. This will *not* be STATIK, but just ideas to consider the type of work and the use of “the office” (if any) that could work for your organization and context.

Fit for purpose. The context might be different even on your organization, as a value stream and its services may be totally different than another. What defines customer satisfaction? what defines employee satisfaction? what does the organization define as value and how it is linked to the employee and customer? Are there KPIs or SLEs? or how can we define them? This will guide how we measure and improve our model.

Employee journey. What are the benefits perceived when using the office? What are the sources of dissatisfaction for your employees? And for remote work? Have your teams struggled with something while working remote? Map an employee journey, ask them! understand their needs and what makes the work flow or impede it.

Demand and Capability. Do you have different types of work? How do the work flow on your system? If you have historical data of your work, you can compare lead time and quality information on different types of work, differences on work performed in-site and remote (if any), or flow of work with “mature” teams compared with teams formed on your remote period. Cumulative flow diagrams and control charts might prove invaluable on this analysis if you had a Kanban system before.

Design the office/remote approach for your organization. As your workflow and Classes of Service might be already modeled and used, explicitly or implicitly you will not be modeling them here (again, if you want to introduce Kanban, use STATIK). Instead you will use the knowledge from the previous points to design your organization approach on using your offices and/or hybrid work that is fit for purpose for your team members, and their context. For example, having a scrum team member going to the office to connect to zoom calls with the rest of the team that is remote, might not be the best approach for that team member, nor the best use of the office on most scenarios, but having a Strategy or Operations Review with all the people needed in site to super charge their focus and collaboration might be.

Socialize, negotiate, and later… improve. Apply UX (or maybe Employee eXperience) principles, use your Design thinking tools 😃! Gain buy-in and have people involved on the design. Tweak your design based on their feedback and implement. Gain validated knowledge on the approach and tweak as necessary.

Chaos is a Ladder

The world has changed. Much that once was before the pandemic is lost, and the ones that were accustomed to every day office work that have experienced the benefits of remote collaboration will not want to go back to that type of work.

As the lines spoken by Petyr Baelish (played by Aidan Gillen) in an episode (S03e06) of Game of Thrones, written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss… The changes the pandemic brought to the world create chaos, and these changes will bring the opportunity for organizations to evolve, to use as a ladder to climb to new heights that were not possible before… some, given the chance, will not climb it and try to return to an old normal that will be incompatible with their people and the new world context, clinging to a way that will no longer work.

Others will design human centric approaches to enhance collaboration, harnessing the power of in-person interactions while ripping the benefits of remote collaboration that are fit for their purpose and context, and validate and tweak them constantly (Kaizen… relentless Kaizen)

They will gain competitive advantage over their peers, while improving their employee experience and value to their customers… They will win in an agile world.

What do you think? What will be your (or your organization’s) approach?

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