OP ED: To Survive the Aftermath of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Businesses Must Enable Digital Agility
Updated: Jun 7
The COVID-19 pandemic required many people to work remotely, and multiple studies show that productivity was fine: the reduced face-to-face conversation did not impact productivity.
But what about collaboration and innovation? An often-heard claim is that innovation happens through ad-hoc discussions while working side-by-side and that people meet others “at the water cooler.”
A study by Microsoft found that people’s work-related networks actually increased during the pandemic. It seems that the water cooler moved online, to Microsoft Teams (or Slack). The digital generation makes this transition easy, as it is accustomed to communicating that way anyway. A colleague of mine who left the workforce in 1993 to raise a family and returned to work in 2010 commented on how silent it had become: In 1993 she remembered phones ringing all the time and constant chatter in the office, but in 2010 all she could hear was the clicking of keyboards. Communication norms change along with new technology, pandemic or not.
The COVID-19 pandemic put to the test two of the central maxims of the Agile movement: that face-to-face communication is always best, and that people sitting side-by-side collaborate better. In contrast, Agile 2 defines a much richer view of collaboration as consisting of not only conversing, but also reading, writing, and thinking—which requires focus. Collaboration about complex topics is not a point-in-time event, but rather is a process that occurs over time; and we need to have a broader view of it than the simple approach that Agile originally advocated.
However, being present in person is essential for professions that require physical facilities, such as the medical industry. A Johns Hopkins Carey Business School study shows that the pandemic has “severely weakened the surgical innovation pipeline and ecosystem.” Clinical researchers need to be examining patients and spending time in their laboratories, and you cannot do that from your home office.
But what about professions that do not require specific physical facilities or proximity to clinical subjects or other tangible targets of activity? What if one’s job only involves discussing and generating information and ideas?
It is too early to tell, but we need to be careful about assuming that the old ways of collaboration are better than new ways. It might be that the old ways are better for some people, but the new ways might be better for others.
A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology indicates that the leaders who naturally emerge from remote teams tend to be those “who help other team members with tasks, and keep the team on schedule and focused on goals,” according to lead author Radostina Purvanova, an associate professor of management and leadership at Drake University in the US state of Iowa. It could be that remote teams are somewhat immune to the “looks like a leader” effect whereby people naturally appoint the person who “looks like a leader.”
Remote work also empowers writers.
When remote, one cannot easily engage in ad-hoc conversations; but one can write a memo, or put together some thoughts in a shared document.
It could be that remote work might empower the deep thinkers who previously struggled to get people to pay attention to them. We might see a more thoughtful workplace emerge. This surely would please Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who famously has required meeting participants to write long-form narratives of their ideas, and has called the practice “the smartest thing we ever did.”
Remote work opens up the world. Companies can now recruit from across the globe, rather than being limited to commuting distance from an office. This makes a broader range of skills and abilities available that were out of reach before. It also benefits workers who can choose where to live based on their preferred lifestyle, rather than having to live near an office.
There are challenges though. Managing remote workers requires different methods. One cannot manage by checking desks, with the theory that if someone is present, they are focused. That might have been a poor method anyway, however. Certainly, if people are performing menial tasks then presence equates to productivity, but if one is designing a new product or collaborating with others on how to best resolve an issue, then merely being present tells little about how effective the person is, or how engaged they are.
For remote teams, one also cannot “manage by walking around”—or can one? If the water cooler has moved online, what about the path that one might walk: is there an online equivalent? There is: it is the various chat channels in Teams and Slack (or whatever text chat system the organization uses). If one inhabits the channels that your teams use, you will hear their chatter. And to “stop by” you can easily send a direct message asking how things are going.
That is surely not the same as being present in person, where you can look someone in the eye and assess their level of relative calm or anxiety. But why not send them a quick text, such as “Hi Brian - good moment to chat?” and then open a video session with them. With tools like Teams and Slack, you can open a video chat with a click.
A good friend of mine (deceased) founded a company called Big Universe (https://www.biguniverse.com). I saw how he did it: he personally conducted live video chats with his entire team every day. The team members were far-flung, in places like Brazil and the western and eastern US. He was on top of what everyone was doing every day.
And that is perhaps the key: to be involved and know what people are working on. You cannot manage by checking desks: instead, you need to actually pay attention to the work itself.
Examine work artifacts to see their quality; “stop by” through text and video, to ask people if they have things they would like to discuss. Be proactive.
Rather than propound extreme and simpleminded ideas such as the Agile Manifesto’s statement that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information...is face-to-face conversation”, Agile 2 embraces diversity, context, and balance. Extremes usually do not work except in extreme situations.
That is why Agile 2 goes deeper and broader in its ideas about both how to collaborate as well as how to achieve the state of cognitive flow needed to do great knowledge work. Whether it be through Slack or video or at an office desk, the purpose of work and communication is to reach a goal, and the COVID-19 experience has shown that many companies and governments were able to keep operating just fine in spite of their fears of loss of control and productivity. It is all up to you and how to choose to operate: whether to hold onto yesterday’s model or to seize the opportunities of a global world.
It is a new world and a new workplace.
Written by Cliff Berg, Founder, Agile 2 Academy