June 20, 2020

Are we really living the Agile Values by insisting on co-located teams?

two people on a remote screen interacting with each other

For many years, many of us have had strong opinions about the importance of having teams that are co-located. Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches have been quick to point out one of the principles from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development that states, "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation". It is a topic that many people feel strongly about.

I was - and still am - in favour of having co-located teams. But over the last few years, I have had to ask myself, at what expense? After all, as quickly as I can point to the "face-to-face" principle, I can just as quickly refer to the 4th value in the Agile Manifesto; "Responding to change over following a plan".

Whether I like it or not, the world has moved on from when I started my own personal Agile journey almost 20 years ago. How Agile is being implemented has itself evolved since the time that the Agile Manifesto was signed. Employees everywhere desire more flexibility with regards to work location and hours. A fairer work-life balance is high up on the agenda of many people.

At the same time, companies operate on an international scale with multiple locations all over the world. Humanity's priorities have got to, and are, changing. Climate change is a major concern for us all and an increasing number of organisations are adopting climate friendly travel policies alongside other actions aimed at being environmentally friendly. There is an increased focus on creating equal opportunities, diversity, and inclusion. Technological advances have continued to accelerate, with more and more advanced remote collaboration tools available to teams who are trying to bridge the distance between physical locations. Today's global economy increasingly requires people to collaborate in teams that cross cultural and geographical boundaries. And the world continues to prove that the future is unpredictable; I am writing this while I am sitting down at my kitchen table which has become my temporary office in the middle of a lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, having just finished facilitating an online workshop involving people from 4 different continents.

Another principle from the Agile Manifesto came into my mind when reflecting on all of this; "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams". The "self-organizing teams" part really stands out. I visited a company last year who were really keen to adopt Scrum. They were completely new to the Scrum framework and so they consulted external Agile Coaches. These Agile Coaches told the leadership team that they were not able to do Scrum because not all employees were working in the same physical location. As the leadership team were so eager to adopt Scrum, employees were given the option of either moving with their families to a centralised location, or to take redundancy. As a consequence, a large number of people left the company and had to look for a job elsewhere. Aside from the fact that nowhere in the Scrum Guide does it say that it is mandatory for Scrum teams to be co-located, other options could have been looked into in this case.

Leadership's role in an Agile environment should be to ensure that teams have a clear purpose and to create the boundaries within which they can self-organise. If we are to embrace self-organisation, why not leave it to the team to decide how they will coordinate and collaborate? Why not support teams in their continuous improvement journey in which they explore for themselves how to achieve their team's purpose and goals however they are geographically distributed? It could be the case that some teams discover for themselves that being spread across multiple locations just does not work for them. Or some teams could actually thrive, finding ways to organise themselves that works for them.

One company that I visited in Uruguay allowed their employees to work remotely whenever they wanted. They found that many people preferred to come into the office locations on most days because they wanted in-person contact with their peers that they would be missing if they were working from home. People had been given the option and it was up to them to decide and agree within their teams how they wanted to work together to meet their goals.

two people in different locations, interacting with each other via a remote web conference tool
Can teams only have meaningful interactions when they are physically in the same space?

 

During the time of the COVID-19 lockdown, there are many discussions arising on the subject of remote working. I have seen staunch supporters of co-location refer to the Agile Manifesto value of "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools" whenever they have felt challenged. Playing devil's advocate, I have a few thoughts of my own regarding this. Firstly, by saying that Scrum teams must be co-located, are we implying that teams can only have meaningful interactions if they are physically in the same location? Secondly, it could be argued that a physical co-location space should be considered as a tool to allow interaction. There is no denying that it is an extremely effective and powerful tool that encourages collaboration between team members. However, we could debate that it is still a tool. By insisting on co-location, it could be said that we are putting tools over individuals and interactions.

Recently I watched a story on the news of a "Choir for Carers", who due to COVID-19 decided to temporarily move the choir practice to a remote platform. To their surprise, they gained a large number of new members. They discovered that unintentionally, for many years, they excluded a big group of people who are housebound as a carer and were therefore excluded. The choir decided that in the future they will run choir practices in a physical location as well as remotely.

Which brings me to my third point of reflection: we are not being inclusive or encouraging diversity in teams if we have policies that automatically exclude people. For example, co-located only teams rejects people that cannot come to the same location every day whether the reason is because of geography, family commitments or them requiring special assistance. Such an approach would mean potentially missing out on having highly collaborative and talented individuals on the team, only because they cannot be in the same location as the rest of the team. I have had to wrestle with this myself; do I value co-location more than having diverse and inclusive teams?

Another experience that led me to see the discussion on co-location through a different lens was from a few years ago when I met the founders of a small agency based in a remote area of the UK. Over the years they had been unable to establish a team at their base location. They had not been able to attract talent in their local area, even though they were happy to train people up. They instead changed tactics and decided to try and build a distributed team that would work remotely. This way they could attract talent from other parts of the UK or from even further afield. In this case, it was more important for the agency to have the right team of people, than compromising on what they were looking for in order to have the team all based at their physical location.

I cannot deny the power of face-to-face collaboration and having co-located teams. I was delighted to hear about the people at the company in Uruguay actually wanting to be at the office together. I absolutely believe that the "face-to-face conversation" principle from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is as relevant today as it has always been. However, at the same time, I cannot - and should not - pretend that the world that I lived and worked in 20 years ago is the same world today. Just as I as a Scrum Master aim to help organisations and teams to adapt towards ever changing markets and changes in customer behaviour, I should be prepared to adapt to changing conditions myself. Teams need environments that enable them to thrive; it is not about what is convenient for me as a Scrum Master.

Am I really living the Agile Values if I continue to interpret the Agile Manifesto as I did 20 years ago?