With the advent of modern collaboration technologies, why do many Agile evangelists still insist on colocation? And should that thinking change following the large-scale work-from-home pilot prompted by Covid-19?
The Agile Manifesto is not explicit about the colocation of teams, but it does promote face-to-face communication for “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information.” And data backs this up: In a study by Ambysoft, for example, teams rated face-to-face communication more than three times more effective than videoconferencing or teleconferencing. Bain’s experience with leaders at companies in a range of industries (including retail, finance, software and media) suggests that colocated teams have typically been about twice as productive as teams distributed across several time zones. So does that mean that we’ve all become half as productive these past few months of working from home? Not likely. While colocation is the ideal, firms such as GitHub have demonstrated practices that can make distributed teams nearly as effective. Below are some of the most important of these practices.
- Minimize time zone disparity. Avoid locating team members over widely differing time zones, say from San Francisco to Mumbai. Ensure that all members can communicate virtually during a sufficient span of normal working hours.
- Agree on common team practices. Working norms help increase distributed teams’ productivity. For example, set core working hours when team members will be available. Teams might also agree that everyone should use a video connection for team meetings or even ad hoc discussions.
- Embrace team distribution. We see a growing trend toward distributed teams in which none of the team members are colocated. One advantage: It avoids the unhealthy interpersonal dynamic in which colocated team members feel a stronger social bond and remote members feel excluded.
- Create virtual colocation. Leaders are creating virtual colocation spaces. For instance, a retail client with a team split across two locations kept an active videoconference always open on a large-screen TV at the front of each team room. This allowed members to view one another’s spaces and spontaneously engage. Another example is a virtual team room. For a few hours a day, an open videoconference allows team members to pop in and out, mimicking the natural conversations that occur in offices.
As collaboration practices evolve, leaders are embracing pragmatic ways of working to improve team effectiveness and morale. Colocation may be the gold standard, but there are many ways to nurture highly productive distributed teams.