Agile software development methodologies, like Scrum, rely on frequent communication, meetings, and visual aids, like blackboards and post-its, to boost concentration and team efficiency. In times of COVID-19, how are agile requirements affected by remote work environments?
César Arce, an agile transformation coach with almost a decade of experience in the field, says that the main challenge is keeping a key component of Scrum: information and communication saturation.
“When a team is working together on an issue, for instance, with a blackboard, and everyone is paying attention to the same thing, we achieve a shared understanding of the problem, what is being done and what is the analysis,” Arce told Nearshore Americas.
“There can be a dispersion of attention when everyone is sent home. Even when, in theory, we can all be seeing the same screen, people can lose some details, which can make the process slower. That’s the reason why we prefer physical interaction,” he added.
However, not everything represents a challenge when moving agile to remote environments. There are also many opportunities. One of Arce’s clients, a Colombian company that did not have any work-at-home schemes before the pandemic, has improved its processes in this context.
“In one week, they developed the tools and the processes to work from home. Also, since this is a company new to agile, they have actually become more organized with digital tools in a remote environment than with the physical ones. Particularly because in their office environments, they had many distractions, and very distracting bosses, so concentration was hard there,” Arce said.
Nevertheless, Arce warns that companies need to be extremely attentive to the well-being of employees since poorly managed work-at-home schemes can lead to burnout and a lack of focus.
For instance, in remote environments employees often work more hours than expected, and issues that were solved with a short conversation in the office hallway can easily turn into long meetings virtually.
It’s Not (Only) About the Tools
Gerardo Chaverri, Mobile Unit Manager at Avantica, has experienced the challenges that Arce describes firsthand. In an attempt to maximize the efficiency of Scrum and agile development in the company, he has led an initiative to simulate the type of interaction that these methodologies require, via augmented reality.
“Virtual reality and augmented reality offer the possibility of making communication easier and increasing concentration, beyond audio and video,” Chaverri told Nearshore Americas.
“Scrum tends to use physical materials, and even communication is often very physical. We have been experimenting with augmented reality so that everyone in a team can see a blackboard and share the same vision,” he added.
This vision coincides with Arce’s warning about the necessity of having everyone focused on the same thing to achieve saturation as a vital part of the Scrum process.
Chaverri says that Avantica has tried this augmented reality experiment with small groups so far, but they are planning to expand it. They are using a tool called Spatial, which is designed for remote collaboration. It allows participants to see the same simulated objects simultaneously, as well as avatars of the other participants.
Arce himself is using a set of similar tools with his clients, but even when he appreciates their value, he warns companies not to focus on the tools they use, but on the processes they enable.
“There is a key concept that tends to be misunderstood. It is more important to see the product development flow than seeing each other faces in a video call. If I do something like Mob programming, we are all seeing the same process at the same time. That’s what we need to aim for with agility,” Arce said.
“I have used mostly tools that create virtual blackboards, like Nureva. The good thing about this tool is that if companies get used to it now when they return to the office, they can substitute the regular blackboard for a tactile screen with Nureva or something similar. This allows for better tracking than lose post-its around the office,” he added.
Both Arce and Chaverri agree that even when agile development has an undeniable physical aspect, which can work better in an office environment, work-at-home will still exist for many Scrum teams when the COVID-19 crisis is over. That is if the transformational projects continue to be carried out correctly.