At the height of the recent health crisis, almost all of us became remote workers overnight. While many of us were familiar with remote working, for the majority, it was little more than the occasional Friday working from home. Remote working had never been done en masse or for an indefinite period. Gartner rightly summed up our collective predicament as ‘the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.’ 1 Fast forward two months and some, including Barclays CEO Jes Staley, are commenting that “…the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”2
Is it too early to declare the death of the office and remote working as the new norm? What, if anything, have we learnt over the past few months and what styles of working will exist once COVID-19 is a historical footnote? The world of agile software development has much to teach about remote working, but also some important things to learn.
Lessons from the Valley
In the race to achieve mastery of remote working, software engineering companies like Virtusa have had a considerable head start. Distributed agile teams working together across different locations, supported by remote working technology, have been common in the industry for over a decade. The same code may be worked on in the US, Europe, and India in the same 24-hour cycle. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and video conferencing are familiar tools to almost all our software engineers. Nevertheless, when faced by the challenge of enabling our entire workforce to work simultaneously from home, an organization-wide approach is required. Remote working may be simple for a couple of weeks, for a few teams, or a handful of sprints. However, sustaining it for months, across thousands of workers, and dozens of product releases is a vast exercise in human resilience and flexibility. The valley may be great at tech, but it has often fallen short on the ‘human stuff’.
It was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was first to acknowledge our essential social needs when he defined man as a ‘political animal.’ When we considered what hadn’t quite worked to date with remote working 1.0, it often came down to human things:
- the need to feel connected
- a clear sense of purpose and direction
- a preference for working together rather than independently
- the spontaneous opportunities to share and exchange ideas with our peers
- sustaining our motivation while working alone
A people-centric approach
To chart a way towards a better remote working 2.0, we at Virtusa identified and systematically worked across three human-centric spheres:
- Redefining what it means to be a successful remote working engineer –Encouraging software engineers to work across the stack to provide end-to-end ownership and automating mundane tasks such as CI/CD pipelines to allow engineers to focus on problem-solving
- Redefining what it means to be a successful remote engineering team – Promoting a culture of over-communication, recalibrating key ceremonies around remote ways of working, encouraging collaboration tools and providing a forum for virtual engineering team socials and hangouts
- Redefining what it means to be a successful remote organization –Developing a virtual delivery center which connects all employees, sharing platforms for self-development, and leveraging productivity and motivational insights via tools such as InsightLive
While it is too early to declare the office era over, what is clear is that the way in which we work will be different after this crisis and remote working will play a much greater role.
As organizations become more comfortable with remote working, it’s likely that we will see hybrid environments, those combining working from home with working in physical offices, and most importantly, the ability to do so seamlessly. Leaders will be required to build resiliency into their teams and encourage an ethos of anywhere, anytime, through training and tooling. HR teams will need to consider how to recognize and reward talent, whether it is based at home or the office. Individuals will be required to find new ways to share knowledge, build emotional connections, and fulfill common goals, regardless of location. Ultimately, offices will be a choice, not a requirement. They will survive, but the culture we traditionally associate with them will not.
The office is not yet dead, but long live remote working 2.0.