As stay-at-home orders extend further, we are all continually adjusting and finding new ways to approach our work. Agile principles can offer some tips on how to be productive and adapt to our new normal. We have discussed the value of using agile practices to stay organized, and the benefits of agile for your teams. But how do companies and teams stay collaborative when the convenience of in-person whiteboard sessions and desk visits are no longer possible?

Here are some first-hand updates on how consultants in the field, including myself, are adapting to fill the void created by remote work environments, and how we’re finding unique ways to enhance collaboration.

Utilizing New Tools

Lots of clear, constructive communication about the work is a fundamental part of being agile. The looming question for many is how to fill the void left by the frequent, unplanned encounters we used to have in the “old days” of working in an office. Conference rooms, hallways, cafeterias – all of them enabled quick conversations, where updates were shared, ideas expanded, or direction given. Those interactions arose from being close to our co-workers, so how do they happen while we are remote?

I've been searching for ideas on how to collaborate outside of video calls. Given that most of my work is with tech teams, we are definitely missing our ability to leverage a whiteboard. There’s just nothing quite like drawing out an idea for a new solution, illustrating a data flow, or mapping out a complicated integration design, while we’re all together in a room.

Or is there?

While these may not give exactly the same experience as working together at the same physical board, there are a growing number of tools that allow teams to see, share, and remotely interact with the work. Here are a few worth checking out:

Finding Comfort in Imperfection

One of the reasons why whiteboarding works so well is because it’s understood that things don’t have to be perfect to put it on the board. You can always erase, move things around, and adjust.

People are drawn to white boarding because it is inherently dynamic and impermanent, which gives them permission to try out new ideas or designs, because they know they can be quickly erased. People are less comfortable sharing their ideas in ways that seem more permanent or definitive - writing your ideas in an email, posting them on a wiki page, or even just sharing them out loud during a conference call. This is something we all have to work to get past. No matter how you end up sharing your ideas, it’s important to embrace the notion that things don’t need to be perfect. Get your ideas out there, and watch evolution happen!

I’ve presented on this concept of “When Good Enough is Best,” originally with an eye toward accurately sizing and estimating work, but it’s also relevant in how we approach our new remote work situations. You’ll often find that you – and your teams – will get better when you aim for “good enough,” instead getting bogged down trying to get to “perfect.”

Long before my days as a consultant, I was an English teacher. I recall many philosophical discussions with teachers and students, about whether a good idea, written with poor grammar or word choice, was better or worse than a terrible idea, written with perfect grammar. While I’ll always be a bit of a grammar geek at heart (long live the Oxford comma!), I’m also a firm believer that, so long as your ideas or intentions are made clear to your audience, you’ve accomplished your work as a writer, regardless of diction or sentence structure.

In a business context, especially when working with teams, the key is to get people’s thoughts and ideas out there, in order to let others respond to and build upon those ideas. And if that’s the goal, then why waste time and effort in making the ideas look perfect? I've worked in organizations where PowerPoint decks were expected to be works of art, whether they were for a bug triage review, or an executive pitch for a new project. Imagine the freedom teams in such an org would feel, if they were allowed to embrace the Arial font, simple boxes, and a plain white background, in order to share the steps to reproduce a bug! In those scenarios, it’s way more important to just get it out, get it shared, and iterate from there.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good!

Acknowledging the Productivity Dip

Even as we make all these adjustments – finding tools to collaborate and getting comfortable with imperfection – perhaps the most important thing we need to do in our new “normal” work world is accept that there will be a dip in productivity as we learn to operate in new ways. Why will our productivity take a hit, and will it rebound?

Here are some of the factors involved.

Work Space = Life Space

Remember when you were in an office, and were so insulated from non-work things? Those days are gone! Now your dog may chime in during your conference call, or your cat may take a stroll across your keyboard during a presentation, or your neighbor’s tap-dance lessons may begin as you’re getting ready to focus on a big deliverable. And then there’s the biggest distraction of all: KIDS! If you’re balancing work and schooling kids at home, there’s no way to avoid being less productive. It’s important to acknowledge to your team – and yourself – that you may not be a well-oiled machine, at first. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get there, as we all learn to balance doing work where we also live.

Feeling Isolated and Overwhelmed in an Overconnected World

We now have so many ways to connect people: email, Slack, Teams, Yammer, Hangouts, Zoom — the list goes on. All of those channels require our attention and time, which take our focus away from getting work done. And while they can help us get questions answered, and certainly facilitate the sharing of useful information, they can also pose some challenges. With so many ways for information and requests to come in, it can become overwhelming, in terms of knowing where to look, how often to look, or worrying that you might miss something, somewhere. This can be exhausting, since you can’t stop paying attention.

In a counterintuitive way, all of these means of staying connected can also leave us feeling more isolated, because all of the connections are remote and digital. Let’s face it, many of us are isolated, as we work from home. This can impact our mood, and our ability to focus on the work at hand. This can be especially true for teams that are used to working together, in person, and motivating each other.

All of the things above can contribute to a productivity dip. It’s a downward spiral for our teams and team members If we don’t take steps to prevent it. Here are a few of the things that we’ve done on my teams, recently, that have helped us find our way back to smooth operations:

  • Setup a twice weekly “watercooler chat” zoom session, which is completely optional and non-work related. We just get together and talk about what we’re up to, which helps us feel connected.
  • Setup a “shirts and shoes required” channel, in Slack, where we can banter with each other, and share fun things throughout the day. It’s proven to be a nice diversion for everyone, and a virtual hang-out spot.
  • Twice weekly virtual yoga sessions, to help us both physically and mentally.
  • We’ve created places for people to share their work updates, so we don’t need a meeting to learn where things are. Teams update our Smartsheet by a certain day /time, each week. This reduces a few meetings per week.
  • We’ve created a randomized “coffee chat” meeting, that pairs two people on the team together, each week, for a 15min meeting – just to talk about whatever they’d like.
  • We’ve agreed that we’re going to use white-background PowerPoint slides for our decks, to make them easier to create and share. This allows us to focus more on the ideas, than the look / feel.

In the end, any time there is a significant change in an organization, there will be a dip in productivity. The key is to let teams know that the dip is expected, and that the organization will be there to support the team as it adjusts to the new normal. And by focusing on stabilizing the people, as well as the work, that dip should fade quickly!

There are a number of tools and resources out there to help offset the inefficiencies of remote work. To help you navigate the unprecedented business challenges related to the current crisis, we have assembled a curated collection of business and leadership tools to keep you and your business “Holding Altitude”. You’ll find remote work best practices, decision-making models, and some of the best resources we’re using ourselves.