Back in the office? - make it count!

A developer starts to work again in the office. After he comes in, he searches for a quiet corner somewhere, opens his laptop, and puts his headphones on to start a Zoom call. Now, what is the sense of that? Here are some ideas of what you can do.

High-performing teams are an essential part of any meaningful Agile/Scrum adoption. Based on my experience, one of the pre-requisites of such high-performing teams is co-location. Co-location means the team members sit in the same room, so they can easily interact and collaborate e.g. they can clarify work issues whenever needed by spontaneously talking to each other, solving implementation issues on a whiteboard, and swiftly agreeing on doing some pair-programming.

Then, the Covid-19 virus came and put the world upside down. Overnight, everything must be done remotely, online. What happened to the aspect of co-location?

Having worked 20 years in Nokia, where development is distributed all over the world, it was a normal part of my work life to work remotely on a regular basis. Telco, Webex, and how those tools were called are not unknown to me. 

So, I adopted my training classes towards an online variant by using Zoom and Miro. I also did a few months of remote coaching with MS Teams (and no Miro/Mural in the end). What are my learnings and take-away? In short, remote training/work lags far behind any physical onsite experience.

What are the biggest challenges?

Conversations, interaction, and clarification now happen much less and if they happen they are more cumbersome. Visualizing those ideas and sketches on a whiteboard or flipchart is not as easy as it used to be. Collaborative tools (like Miro, Mural) which would support such interaction are often not allowed in companies. As a result, the interactions are often less productive since these tooling issues form additional hurdles.

Further, distraction happens easily. Instead of focusing on the topic, people start reading emails and chat messages, browsing the internet, and so on. It happens very easily. 

Another big aspect is that people are missing the informal and very important interaction with others during the breaks and in the coffee corners. In online sessions, people disappear during the breaks. When the meeting is over, it is over, and typically most people have another meeting following and now you cannot even walk together to the next meeting room any more. In the best case, the camera is on, however, often enough I stared at a black screen. Not being able to see other people’s body language certainly makes communication more difficult and misinterpreted.

Why was it not such an issue in the old days?

The major difference was the majority of the time i.e., 3-4 days per week I spent in the office and only 1-2 days in the home office. And yes, my individual productivity was better, I got a lot of stuff done at home which would have required more time in the office. However, compared to an in-person team event any kind of remote team event had questionable outcomes and productivity, despite our best attempts to make it work.

I see the benefits of both sides, being in the office when needed, and working occasionally from home. Could this be a future working model and what to watch for?

A possible future hybrid model

As we all know, the only way to navigate your organization in this complex world is by experimenting followed by Inspect & Adapt. Thus, here are a few experiments to get you going.

Experiment 1: Try this … working 2-4 days per week in the office and the other days remotely.

Experiment 2: Try this … Make the decision which days to be in the office within your product development organization and not at the company level. Why make the same rule for all x-thousands of employees? The bigger the group, the harder it will be to find common ground, and typically the fewer employees are involved in the decision-making.

Experiment 3: Try this … When being in the office, make it count. Do not come to the office to sit there in your corner, having the headset on and joining the meeting online. What is the sense of that? Instead have all those important collaboration meetings where you need to brainstorm, clarify, discuss with others when you are in the office. That means Sprint events, like Planning, review, retro, and refinement, and other kinds of workshops are done only face-to-face to ensure high interaction and high dynamics.

By doing so, you will build trust in your colleagues and you will bridge common events like the daily stand-up much easier on those days, where everybody is working remotely.

Experiment 4: Avoid this … Having events in a mixed-mode, where a group of people is physically present in the office, and the others are scattered remotely. Why? The onsite group is focused on each other and forgets to involve the remote participants. Remote individuals have trouble following the conversation, might not see what is drawn, might be distracted by other messages, and might not be given a chance to speak. You encounter all the technical difficulties of a remote call. In short, those types of events are the worst I have experienced, not once but over and over again.


Do experiments, inspect, and adapt and you will find your own path. Please feel free and share your experiences as I am eager to see how it will work out.


Back in the office? – make it count!
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