When starting our research into the agile workforce, it was important to be clear about terminology. What counts as an “agile” team – how is it different to a traditional one? Immediately you realise that although “agile” is used in a broad sense in terms of new ways of working or activity-based working, it is also used in the context of software development methodology – and that’s definitely not what we are looking at here!
What are agile / virtual teams & how do they differ from traditional ones?
A simple definition is that these teams do not work together (i.e. physically) all the time. When we looked at the research, we found that generally teams consisted of two or more people who collaborate interactively to achieve common goals – but at least one of the team works at a different location or at a different time to the others. As that is the case, their communication and the coordination of their activities are predominantly carried out via electronic methods.
Naturally there is a continuum in terms of virtuality – in fact it is hard to imagine a team where people are together in the same place at the same time, all the time. Hence it becomes clear that everyone works virtually some of the time – even if they are all based in the same office, they will spend their time in meetings, working elsewhere in the building, going out to visit clients etc.
The research we studied showed that there are 4 principal areas which impact the performance of agile / virtual teams – things which require a different approach when compared to a team that works mostly face-to-face:
- The reliance on workplace technology for communication
- The physical / geographical dispersion of the team
- The degree of asynchronicity in their working patterns
- Social factors – such as trust, social cohesion and relationship building
We will be considering the impact of these across the current series of blogs – thinking about how we can do things differently when we are apart. The major aspects we will be considering are shown in our diagram and this time we are looking at Synchronicity.
It’s all about synchronous / asynchronous working
In the world of 21st Century work, the ability to conduct business across time zones to service customers and partners during their hours of operation rather than our own, to collaborate with parties who aren’t physically with us and to embrace people’s choices of when and where to work, are increasingly vital for success. We simply don’t work on things at the same time – of necessity we initiative communications and respond to them at different times. Here are some examples:
- Colleagues are based in different time zones, so often rely on written communications which inevitably mean there is a delay in obtaining information, feedback, decisions, inputs etc.
- Colleagues are in the same time zone but work different hours or days of the week (job share, part time working, compressed hours, flexitime etc.) – giving fewer opportunities for face-to-face or voice contact
- Colleagues participate in more activities away from the team’s base so are less available for 1:1 real time communication
- Colleagues choose working hours that suit their personal circumstances or when they are most effective, decreasing the amount of time they are available to each other in real time
- Colleagues participate in meetings or other collaborative activities, fragmenting the time they have available for team communications. This may occur due to workload demands, illness, holidays, or prioritising other activities above those relating to the team.
Clearly when teams work asynchronously, they rely more heavily on written communications and upon the quality of those communications. This means that email (and to a degree instant messages and text messages) need to be clear and unambiguous, so that time isn’t wasted through misunderstandings or incomplete responses. When we are together it’s easy to check understanding and ensure everyone is on the same page – when we aren’t together, we need to put more effort into our communications, so we don’t leave things to chance.
What can we do?
When communications are disjointed (or asynchronous if you like) a number of simple things can help all teams ensure that their quality and productivity is protected – but these are even more important for those adopting agile working / activity-based working or working more virtually from each other:
- Communications occur in a timely manner and colleagues are trusted to respond promptly
- Content is reliable (we trust each other) and comprehensive (i.e. everything raised is responded to)
- The team know each other well enough to know where they can get the things they need (i.e. who knows what)
- Colleagues respect each other’s time
- Team members know enough about each other’s workload and what they can contribute so they can make a judgement about whether their input will be sufficient and satisfactory
- Team members take responsibility for the quality of their interactions with others – not leaving things to the other party to resolve and consciously try to adapt to accommodate the needs of their colleagues
The quality of communications also relies upon people knowing each other’s preferences and strengths – not just in their areas of expertise but in the methods of communication that they favour. It may not always be possible to adapt to your colleague’s preference for speaking on the phone if you are in different time zones – but at least knowing this preference gives you a clue as to why they may not respond to your emails!
Reliance on written communication also calls (ideally) for the rigour with which the team members communicate (frequency, speed of response, clarity of response etc.) to be explicitly agreed between them – i.e. agreeing what is appropriate for different types of circumstances or events.
Empower the team
The important conclusion to be drawn is that as the natural opportunities for real time communication (spoken or face-to-face) decrease, the importance of written communications increases. Poor written communications can often be resolved by a quick chat, but if there are few opportunities for that quick chat or people are disinclined to pick up the phone, then a misunderstanding can take a while to be unearthed. This is often the way that relationships start to break down and inevitably team and workplace productivity will suffer. Encouraging team colleagues to take responsibility (and not leave everything to the manager to initiate) helps empower the team.
Next time we look at the next factor that was revealed as important for virtual / agile teams to pay attention to – namely leadership (and actually ‘workership’).