In the coronavirus crisis, working from home has become a megatrend in the business world. It seems that the home office – once wrongly associated with laziness and sneaking out of work early – is on the verge of becoming the new normal. For example, the Siemens Managing Board has decided that it will become a global standard in the company to work from home, rather than coming to the office, two or three days a week. And at Google, everyone is set to stay at home until further notice.

But how does this fit in with the other prevailing trend in the working world, namely the switch to agile working? After all, this modern method is closely linked to intensive collaboration in small groups and close, regular creative exchange. Anna-Maria Lange, Consultant at Nunatak, and Jan-Henning Jestädt, Project Manager at Nunatak, talk about the new challenges and opportunities:

Doesn’t agility suffer from the lack of direct, personal communication?

Anna-Maria Lange: At first glance, one could assume so. After all, agile working is a process that relies heavily on direct exchange and collaboration. That may sound quite different from the lonely home office where you’re normally sitting in front of your computer all by yourself. But the factors of self-responsibility and self-organization are also among the basic principles of agility. And that’s what is needed now. So home office is both an opportunity and a challenge.

Jan-Henning Jestädt: Companies that have already been working a lot with agile principles and methods prior to the worldwide spread of COVID-19 had no major problems with this adaptation to the new normal. But most companies come from a rather hierarchical work organization. They had not previously implemented agile working methods. This means that the new reality of greater freedom, less direct control and yet high productivity at home is often a surprisingly positive experience for traditional companies. Of course, home office should not be equated with agility, but it can help pave the way.

What changes to teams’ organization are necessary if the teams are to work in an agile and virtual way?

Jan-Henning Jestädt: The changeover of companies to agile working always requires a cautious approach. It’s a learning process, and it’s not always reasonable. Each business unit has to find out for itself which elements and methods are suitable. Usually this starts with the very common Kanban board and a change in the size of organizational units – away from separate, giant departments and toward cooperation across previous silo boundaries. The step-by-step approach allows everyone in the team to become familiar with the new way of working without being put off by 20 new rules and work processes. Appropriate tools for getting started are of course also available at home via corresponding communication apps, virtual whiteboards and collaboration platforms.  

Anna-Maria Lange: The home office boom  is really making things easier for us. We no longer have to do so much convincing when it comes to the basics and the right mindset that are necessary for agile work. Confidence in the willingness of employees to perform – even without compulsory monitoring – has grown.

Nevertheless, there are certainly special challenges if you want to organize creativity virtually?

Jan-Henning Jestädt: Thanks to the coronavirus, tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and many others are now standard in every company. This development has been validated by 250 German decision-makers in our new study #NextLevelDigital, which focuses on digitalization initiatives before, during and – prospectively – after the coronavirus. Properly moderated and paired with virtual whiteboards or other tools, a lot of creative power and dynamism can be created while collaborating remotely.

Anna-Maria Lange: That’s right. Such virtual meetings can replace a lot of actual, physical presence. But here’s another part of the truth: The energy is different as soon as you are together in the same room with other people and can look each other directly in the eye. Unfortunately, the coronavirus reality is different at the moment.

Jan-Henning Jestädt: That’s right – body language and facial expressions are important communication signals that often get lost in videoconferences with more than three people, because all the participants usually find themselves lost on the small screens. But looking forward, there is certainly going to be a mix of remote and physical collaboration. There may be two days a week when everyone works together in the company with the option to communicate directly – under the rules that the coronavirus pandemic continues to impose on us. In addition, employees will still have the freedom to work from home on the other days and arrange these days flexibly – even if that means choosing to work at 2:00 a.m. Asynchronous documentation of results is agile work in its purest form.

Anna-Maria Lange: That’s what many people enjoy about the new situation: They can withdraw and do their work with full concentration and self-determination when the tasks require it.

What is the feedback from your customers? How is their agility working under the current conditions?

Jan-Henning Jestädt: A current customer project is a great example: In the months prior to Corona, we had been driving the project forward with a healthy mixture of close cooperation on site and virtual collaboration done in an agile way. So it was only logical to continue the project completely virtually in the course of the conversion to home office. And the experiences have been positive throughout: The entire team enjoys the freedom and flexibility gained while at the same time observing no restrictions in the work results. The fact that they suddenly didn’t have to deal with commuting and traffic jams during the rush hours anymore certainly took care of the rest. We can already see here that this new form of working, which combines both physical and virtual cooperation, has become established and will continue to establish itself in the long run.

Anna-Maria Lange: I’ve experienced exactly the same thing in the courses offered by our Nunatak Academy, where we prepare managers and employees for digital change – usually in face-to-face seminars. During the lockdown, we very quickly converted our courses to virtual offerings. And our participants’ feedback was equally positive: They want to keep it that way – and their companies are also happy about the savings in travel costs.


Header Image: iStock/HAKINMHAN

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