Bringing Focus to Individuals & Interactions While Responding to Tremendous Change

Our agile practices of inspecting and adapting to constantly changing environments has prepared us to be flexible and to experiment. Our Scrum Values have taught us how to be open and courageous. We need to incorporate these values and practices into our everyday lives now, more than ever.

Elizabeth Burgess

April 22, 2020

Elizabeth Burgess (Boulder, CO) - Agile Coach & Squad LeadWith help from Tushar Archana (Pune, India) - Agile Coach, Hope Smith (Boulder, CO) - Scrum Master, Sadie Fulton (Boulder, CO) - Engineering Manager, and Jim Turpin (Boulder, CO) - Agile Coach & VP of Engineering

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting how we live and work. To describe how we are adjusting our work today, I’d like to borrow from Gil Broza, we really need to focus on the Human Side of Agile. It’s not just about efficiently working with our teams near and far while also working from home, but it is also about caring for each other and showing grace when needed, given no one knows for sure how long we’ll all be working from home. In times of crisis, people’s, as well as companies’, true colors show through.

How has this impacted the Agile Motivators Squad at Uplight?

As the leader of the Agile Motivators Squad, I help ensure that Uplight’s Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches have what they need to be successful, but they are really the ones on the front lines with  engineering. We have 6 offices across all time-zones in North America, plus an office in Pune, India. I set out to investigate how we all have adapted our practices and approaches to support each other personally, while delivering every day (while understanding we won’t be as productive as we’d like)? I reached out to our Squad to ask what changes have helped them succeed during this time and the changes they have seen in their pods (aka scrum team at Uplight).  

How have you adapted your practice during the stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic with your pods?

Tushar: As truly said the people side of Agile is the most important aspect of Being Agile, else PODs fall back to the old practice of Doing Agile for the sake of doing it. We hone and practice the principle of “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face (F2F) conversation.”
While an actual F2F conversation is not possible right now, we have pledged to talk more frequently and use video calls rather than the Slack typing. In this new normal, we have an accepted norm not to directly jump on the business issues and discussions on calls, but to spend a couple of minutes checking in to see how are the things on a personal and family front.

Hope: The biggest change has been to make sure meetings are meaningful and all pod members have a space to participate. I’m hypervigilant about trying to keep a pulse on team members' mood and engagement. I reach out if something seems off. I keep the mood lighthearted and playful where I can.  

How have they adapted their process to work with each other across home offices and time zones?

Tushar: Our work and collaboration is now driven not by our business calendars but more by our personal calendars. We are using an app like SpaceTime to take the complexity out of timezone conversations and meeting scheduling. We have worked out our Golden ( All are working and available) and Red (DnD) timings and we post them on a daily basis. This helps us stay connected remotely and keep track of  the different time zones we work across.

Hope: Our pod came up with a ‘Remote Working Agreement’ and established new norms. We created new rules on availability, expectations of response times, and communication. We welcome and embrace small guests (kiddos and pets) to our meetings.

How have you all made space for team building and connection?

Tushar: While working remotely creating a space for team building and connections is indeed a major challenge as you can not do so much as you can do when you are working F2F. However, certain creative ideas like identifying an enthusiast in the team and encouraging them to play a guitar, sing a song, or even tap their feet on a dance number melts the typical professional barriers and integrates the team more informally. While doing so, if someone’s kid wants to perform, we are welcoming it wholeheartedly–– which makes the team bond stronger than ever.

Hope: When the weather is nice, we make timer for a pod hike (with acceptable social distancing in place, of course). We also have a time set for us to play virtual games. Zoom backgrounds have been a huge hit! One member of the pod has a different background each day and we try to guess which movie it came from.

Have you found anything that hasn’t worked for you and your pod(s)?

Hope: At the moment, the remote working agreement has really helped the pod deal with the ambiguity around not having F2F time. We just went through a big quarterly planning and the feedback I’ve received is that people actually liked virtual planning better.

What has been the biggest challenge and struggle for everyone?

Tushar: Everyone of us is going through a phase that we have never heard of, anticipated, or have expert judgement on. VUCA ( Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) is a fact of life, especially in businesses and career. Especially in the software world, our VUCA was limited to user stories and requirements and we had the Definition of Ready, Definition of Done, and Acceptance Criteria for it.
However in our current situation, our VUCA can not be managed by any solutions and plans, allowing anxiety to creep in because it is one of the most challenging times  for everyone.

How has your pod accounted for the drop in capacity that results from anxiety and change that is happening in the world?

Tushar: Our pods definitely accounted for a drop in capacity and productivity, however all the pod members have committed to preventing declines in productivity. I strongly think that our pod members are truly living and imbibing the Agile Manifesto of “Responding to Change over Following a Plan” and that is making us remain committed to the fact that working software is the primary measure of progress.

Hope: In Sprint planning, this is now a special consideration and something that the pod factors in when bringing potential work into the Sprint.  The pod has been really great about advocating for themselves when they need help or space, and other members of the pod have  stepped up to help by going outside of their usual roles.

And how have our Engineering Managers changed their practice?

Sadie: Remote working means you cannot peep over the cubicle divider, read your teammates' physical expressions, and offer the physical support you're used to providing: a smile, an inside joke, a laugh, a hi-five, a fist bump, or whatever the old-normal case may have been. We've needed to digitalize these interactions in order to support coworkers’' physical and emotional states, which obviously impacts how we show up and support each other. For our pod, this means  more frequent Slacks asking, "how are you?", impromptu video calls for quick questions and check-ins that may have previously happened at the company's bubbly water machine, and virtual team events like happy hours or game sessions.

Jim: My engineering pod is a new pod formed in the middle of this pandemic. We’re still working on the forming-storming-norming-performing so we’re using Zoom sessions where we all work on related things and can bounce ideas off of each other as if we were sitting in the same room. We’re also using the time to create team charter / working agreements.

But how have I adapted my practice?

I realized early on, in all of this, that I was struggling to be ok and get settled. I was fortunate in that Tushar and I already had weekly check-ins established since he was in Pune. But finding a groove with the rest of the squad was difficult. I didn’t want my squad to feel like they had to have it all together, especially when I didn’t. So within the first week of being full time WFH, I started posting a daily status in Slack on my Red-Amber-Green rating. I was very transparent as to where I was and why, so that if my reactions were short, perhaps my coworkers  would understand. And on those days that I was green, my cup was full to help support them. I wanted them all to know that it’s ok to not be ok and that we are all working through this shift in different ways. I also made sure to give those with kids the space to get settled; and then  resettled when “spring break” ended and the kiddos went back to (virtual) school. We embrace dogs barking in the background and cats walking across the screen. It’s funny and it’s life, and it makes us all feel at ease.

Our statuses change daily (from Red to Green to Yellow to Green and back again). We care deeply for each other, but we also still hold each other accountable (within reason); which brings us back to reality and some level of normalcy. We are all experimenting each week with new ways of working, and sharing it with each other. Using Slack’s “Commuting” status to mute notifications for an hour after we sign-off for the day and mimicking our decompression hour when driving home have been favorites of mine. Creating a “meeting free” day and moving all meetings to another day of the week to combat the sudden onslaught of impromptu meetings that take away  focus time has become important and is something I’m actively encouraging and supporting.

I believe that we’ll get through this. Our agile practices of inspecting and adapting to constantly changing environments has prepared us to be flexible and to experiment. Our Scrum Values have taught us how to be open and courageous. We need to incorporate these values and practices into our everyday lives now, more than ever. There will be a lot of new innovative ways that we all find to incorporate into our daily lives,  as well as a few bad habits we’ll be happy to get rid of. I can’t wait to go back to the office and throw some High Fives.

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