How to maintain an agile culture while empowering remote work

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Remote work is becoming a more common arrangement.
Remote work is becoming a more common arrangement.

Just as the truest phrases become cliche over time, certain business terms eventually become buzzwords. But these areas of innovation are discussed frequently only because they genuinely have transformative powers for organisations globally.

Chances are you've heard the terms 'agile' and 'remote work' recently. Businesses across the globe are employing agile tactics in their workplaces and offering more options for remote working as a result of changing organisational needs and employee work styles.

Before we explore the intersections of these terms, it's important to understand their definitions.

What is business culture?

The first thing to understand is that a company culture is more than just free beers and an office pool table. In fact, company culture has little to do with these things.

Company culture is about agreed processes – shared values on how work gets completed, what a company prioritises and where it puts its resources.

It's about how you work, not where you work. This sometimes clashes with people's perceptions of culture. Over time, many companies have confused value-adds with value-props. They provide fluff instead of focusing on the business side of what makes a company great.

While it's awesome to have the occasional company outing, what employees really want is an employer that shares their values on how work should be done and why.

This is important because professionals are more likely to enjoy their time in the workplace when they fit in with the company culture. For businesses, this means a workforce that's happy, engaged and productive.

What is an agile working culture?

As a member of a culture you value particular things, communicate in particular ways. Participating in a culture often implies a particular process. Put simply: Culture is process.

If we accept this as true, then agile working culture is really a company that prides itself on following agile methodologies and frameworks for work. Agile methods are all about responding quickly and adapting to change, rather than keeping to a strict process or procedure.

The term was created in the world of software development, referring to a workflow that allowed programmers to develop the products in a fluid, ongoing fashion, rather than planning everything from the outset and adhering to the plan no matter what.

Here are a few of the distinctive features of agile cultures:

Flexibility. Flexibility is a hallmark of agile work cultures. When an issue pops up, there is more than one person to solve it, with more than one solution. As a team, you work together to find the most effective fix. Agile work cultures also tend to be flexible when it comes to schedules, time off and remote work as this empowers employees to find an approach to work that suits them best.

Responsibility distribution. Speed is the name of the game in agile cultures. This doesn't mean rushing through work, rather structuring tasks in a way that means you can have quick response times for any given issue. 

Fast response times. Agile work environments also prioritise speed, whether it's speed in adopting new standards and policies, or literal speed when addressing a new problem. You have more people capable of solving problems, and more methods available to solve problems, so problems naturally get solved faster.

What is remote work?

There used to be a long-standing perception that to get work done staff needed to be physically present in an office space. For conversations to be effective, they needed to happen face-to-face. For projects to be done to a high standard, there needed to be a physical management presence. For a culture to thrive, there needed to be a shared space.

Remote working turned these notions on their head.

Defined as working outside of a traditional office space, remote working was born out of the idea that work does not need to be done in a specific place to be executed successfully.

Modern technology and strong organisational processes enable most workers to get their jobs done from virtually anywhere. This ability aligns well with the push for more work-life balance. If we open up the opportunity for workers to work from anywhere, we empower them to find a work-life balance that suits them – resulting in happier employees.

Not convinced? Here are just a few of the stats:

How do you maintain an agile working culture with remote work on the rise?

While the benefits of remote working are plentiful, detractors of remote working worry about whether or not companies will be able to maintain a healthy agile company culture without their teams being physically present.

Like most things, it's possible when you take the right steps. Here are a few key tips for enabling remote work while maintaining a strong agile culture in your company.

Tip #1: Create an even playing field

When it comes to remote working, you're either in or you're out. You need to commit completely to optimising processes and workflows to enable productivity and collaboration regardless of location.

According to co-founder of remote working business Helpscout, Nick Francis: "When an office culture makes exceptions for remote people, rather than embracing remote culture wholeheartedly, it doesn't work."

If you don't optimise your in-office processes for your remote team, you end up making remote workers feel like they're less important and their engagement and productivity will dip as a result. You need to create a level playing field, a system where every worker stands as equal, regardless of location.

Tip #2: Set expectations

Remote working cannot thrive without collaborative decisions on communication and an agile culture can't exist without strong communication channels. This means you'll need to create ground rules for how you'll communicate, where you'll communicate, when you'll communicate and what you'll communicate.

Setting expectations on which channels are to be used for what topics really helps set the tone for communication and ultimately encourages more conversation. For example, you may want serious conversations to always take place on email or video calls but casual discussions may be better suited to Google Chat or Slack.

Putting together these communications guidelines will help ensure they are well documented and crystal clear to all employees – old and new. Pro-tip: Ensure all of these communication choices are inclusive of both remote workers and in-office workers to maintain a level playing field.

It's important to regularly review this expectations and make changes where necessary.

Tip #3: Understand your team

When we understand our people, we can better lead them through changes. Figure out what your team needs from you so they are empowered to work in an agile way while switching up their locations. More importantly, if you're just making the shift to more remote work, make sure you understand how staff will perceive these moves. Framing potential reactions in a Whole Brain® framework can be helpful here.

For example, your red quadrant thinkers are probably worried about the reduction in social interaction, they might even be emotional when thinking about how this will affect their relationships in the office. Your blue quadrant thinkers, on the other hand, are probably concerned about the logistics. Do they have reliable wifi at home? Is there a dedicated office area in their houses?

Tip #4: Invest some budget into social events

Okay, so, work culture is definitely more about work processes than it is grabbing beers with your team but, let's be honest, bonding with your team mates over a glass of wine definitely doesn't hurt your culture.

Leaders should be prepared to set aside some spend for social events in their cities. This could be as simple as an in-office breakfast once a month or a Friday night bar tab at your favourite local pub. Whatever it is, encouraging your team members to participate in this event is important.

Planning for a shift towards remote work 

Even in normal times, managers in the core of any company face significant challenges; they have to communicate up, down, and laterally in order for everyone to be productive.

While every part of change is fraught with seemingly unique perils, they all bottleneck at the manager level. This is where either the rubber meets the road or the wheels come off the car. If the pace and nature of change overwhelms the managers who are responsible for change management, it risks failing.

How can you prepare people to face intense and unexpected challenges that might come from any direction?

  • Help them understand their own thinking and the biases it comes with.
  • Help them communicate effectively with those who think differently.
  • Give them a framework and common language to engage with people they don't know.

All of these things are about self-awareness, patience, and approaching challenges with the right perspective. This isn't fluffy, nebulous stuff, it's actionable, repeatable and provides the best insurance we know against the difficulties that come with any M&A integration.

Over the last 30 years, we've helped hundreds of organisations through the challenges that come with rapid change. Let us guide you through this brave new world of remote work, agile cultures and the intersection of the two. To learn more about how Whole Brain® Thinking can change your perspective, download our free whitepaper today!