One of the key principles of agile management is personal communication. “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversations.” says the Agile Manifesto. But this principle has not been practicable since the Corona crisis. Remote is the future of work and will become the standard in the next few years wherever possible. But distributed teams work and communicate in a fundamentally different way than teams that sit together in one place. How does this affect the work of coaches and consultants and the projects in the company? Eva-Lotte Gnüg talks about this with Agile Coaches Victor Wenzel and Jan Konopka, who believe that Agile Coaching and Agile Management also works remotely. In the podcast, they explain how to manage distributed organizations remotely, which methods are used to make agile management work remotely and which practices help to work together efficiently despite different work locations.
Hören Sie dazu unseren mgm Podcast Folge #11 oder lesen Sie unten das schriftliche Interview.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: My name is Eva-Lotte Gnüg and I am talking to Jan Konopka and Victor Wenzel today about how Corona has changed the work as an Agile Coach and how it still works. Victor and Jan, would you please introduce yourselves again?
Victor Wenzel: With pleasure. Thank you, Eva. Hello, my name is Victor Wenzel. I have been a consultant with mgm consulting partners and working in the agile environment for over a year. #00:00:32-3#
Jan Konopka: Hello to you all from me too. My name is Jan Konopka. I am also a consultant at mgm consulting partners and have been working in the agile field for over five years now. I have already taken on various roles there and am currently also working as an agile coach.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Thank you. You both work in the e-commerce sector. As I understand it, your work is relatively little affected by the current Corona restrictions. Nevertheless, the question is: Has the situation changed for you? How is it going at the moment?
Victor Wenzel: Exactly, Eva. Thanks for mentioning it already. We are active in the e-commerce sector and the Corona crisis has of course rather positive effects on the e-com sector. In online trading environments the technical equipment is usually available and everybody has a laptop to work with. Online trading has no direct customer contact. And of course, in the current situation, customers are ordering more than ever before because they don’t go to the shops to shop, but order things over the Internet. Therefore, in this area, only positive effects, if you can call it that, can be seen. However, our work situation has already changed. With my relatively large team, consisting of three countries, there are of course the normal language barriers. However, we have always worked remotely. I’m on the road at the customer’s premises every week. However, none of my team members are on site, but in France, in another German city and in Bulgaria. We didn’t have to make any major changes to our work here, as we all already have experience with remote tools through our daily work. The only thing that has really changed for us is, of course, the home office situation. My team members are all very senior. That means they have a family and children in the background. And because of the home office situation, other factors play a very, very important role, such as taking care of the children and of course keeping them busy, because they can’t go to school or kindergarten. So this is a very big difference to the daily work before the Corona crisis.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: I can imagine that. What does it look like for you, Jan?
Jan Konopka: I am currently supervising two teams that are very different. All in all, the team members are also distributed throughout Europe and work in a total of five locations. Accordingly, remote work is actually our daily bread. That’s why we are already used to working remotely and have long since established the corresponding tools as very valuable for us. As I said, I have two teams. One is purely German-speaking and the second is an international team. Thematically, the teams are also very different. One is specialized in algorithms and the other is a typical front-and-back-end team. Accordingly, there are also very big differences in terms of content and how to proceed in terms of agility. And of course, like Victor, I’m often at the customer’s site and travel a lot, since my teams are at five different locations in Europe. Normally, and this has of course now changed a bit as a result of the Corona crisis, this means that we are all in the home office. That’s why we are also struggling with the typical problems such as technical restrictions, VPN connections and of course the issue of social distancing. Since my team members in both teams are relatively young, we don’t have the typical problems with family like Victor in the team, but rather that one has too little contact with colleagues. Accordingly, you have to promote the social aspect a little bit.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: That sounds difficult. You have both already mentioned it: Could you perhaps go into a little more detail about the challenges you are currently experiencing due to this home office situation?
Victor Wenzel: Yes, of course, gladly. What is of course the typical thing, but what you also have in normal everyday life, are the misunderstandings in the team. These are the typical transmitter-receiver problems, which also arise from language barriers when you have an international team with many different dialects of English. This means that misunderstandings can occur from time to time and you have to ask questions and make sure that you get to the bottom of the problems or statements. The second is that we have established working principles in our teams or have committed ourselves to them. This is the way we deal with each other in the team and especially how we want to enforce the remote guidelines. This means that we let each other speak out and don’t interrupt you, that we switch on the camera in video call, if possible, if the VPN connection allows this. And of course a completely different, important point to keep the motivation in the team high is that we do not neglect the social aspects in the team.
Jan Konopka: I would add something else: In addition to the technical problems Jan mentioned, in teams that have family or partners, it is of course very important that the home office includes more than just working. It is no longer like that: I wake up in the morning to go to the office, have my eight hours of focus on work, not be distracted, but there are children in the background, who of course need to be looked after. Sometimes you have to throw in the daily routine and household chores. And to bring all that under one roof is a very, very big challenge. The mentioned, no longer fixed working hours and routine are missing. The team members have to create their own routine again. Of course, breaks are also very, very important, so that this routine is maintained in everyday life, because in the home office there is a greater chance that you forget the times a little more and you think: I can still do something now. But I would say that it is extremely important to take breaks in order to keep the over- or under-load within limits or to contain it.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: I can imagine that this is very individual. And you have really different teams. That is very exciting. What success factors have you found in the last few weeks, or maybe even longer now, when you’ve been working remotely for some time, that will help you to work well remotely, but possibly also to be able to work well remotely in this home office time?
Victor Wenzel: I would differentiate between remote working. Jan and I have already explained that even before the Corona crisis we worked remotely on a regular basis, but with this office idea and in this office environment. I’d rather talk about the current situation of the home office. One of the guiding principles of the Agile Manifesto says: Individuals and interactions are more important than processes and tools. And I think I speak for Jan and myself that this guiding principle is enormously important in the current situation, because every person is an individual and has his own needs. Everyone works more effectively at different times. If you now also take into account the situation of the children, that you actually create agreements in the team, for example that mothers or fathers do not work in the morning, but start at noon and then work longer, so that she can look after the children in the morning and her partner in the afternoon. You really have to be responsive to people. Processes and successes are of course extremely important. But these successes from the projects can only be achieved if the person functions. And a human being in the present time of the home office, as I said now about families, only works if the things in the back of your mind like: Are my children happy? Are my children annoyed because I don’t pay attention to them? If these points can be ticked off with satisfaction in the mind, you can work effectively from home because you don’t have thoughts in the back of your head to distract you. Another aspect is, of course, that trust in the team members is very, very important. Through the flexibility “You can’t work in the morning, but you work longer”, you create freedom for the team members, which also shows them: I am appreciated here, I am taken care of, my problems are recognized and accepted and suitable solutions are found. You are not forced to do anything, my ass: No, the normal working hours are 8:00 to 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. You have to be there at that time. Instead, solutions are found independently within the team, which everyone accepts. And everyone is satisfied in this way. These are factors for me in the current situation to be able to implement the home office in the best possible way in the Corona crisis and of course to be efficient and effective as a team.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: That sounds really good to you. I’m now experiencing the same thing myself, being in the home office, and I’m also noticing that it’s more difficult to structure and motivate myself. How do you do it with your teams to keep motivation high, when everyone is so individually “trapped” in the home office, in quotation marks?
Jan Konopka: That’s where I’d like to get into. There are of course different concepts. The important thing is that you always have to decide individually for each team, you can suggest things, try them out in the team and then see what works best for the team. In other words, in a team we have now set up a remote coffee break, for example, where we say: We want to be in a different place than the workplace and see each other via camera. In other words, we even do this via Facetime, if necessary on the balcony, with a cup of coffee or tea or with a glass of water and talk about other topics. We don’t want to talk about work topics, but about private things, so that we can revive this typical conversation like at the coffee machine and interact with each other there. Other things are, for example, organising a remote games evening. There are actually a lot of websites that offer this by now, where you can play typical games like Wizard or even Four Wins or something like that, which bring a bit of the fun factor into the team. Another thing: In both teams we work with Microsoft teams and we opened another chat room there, which we called Coffee Entertainments. Anyone can post any topic, start any conversation they want to talk about, or, or, or, or. Sometimes someone posts a good recipe in there to say: Hey, I made this for lunch today, here’s a picture, check it out. It tasted great and went super fast. That way you keep the spirit in the team high. I have also heard from other teams that they do sports together, that they meet in the evening, watch a video on YouTube and do sports together. Some also cook together. Of course there was also the fact that we met in the evening for a beer and ended the week together on a Friday. We see that despite the difficult situation we always have a human factor, even if we are completely separated all over Europe, we have to keep the motivation in the team high. There is one premise that must not be disregarded: all offers that you try to establish in the team must be optional. This means that there must not be anything obligatory for the team members, but each team member, as Victor has just said, has other influencing factors in the home office, be it children or other meetings or events that he has organized for himself in a private setting, be it the call with his grandmother, or, or, or. Therefore, such things that contribute to motivation must always be optional. This means that there are also people or team members who pull themselves out of it a bit while others actually appreciate it. And that’s the important thing, that you don’t put the mandatory factor on top of it, but the optional factor.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: It’s not supposed to be an extra burden, but to bring in the fun.
Jan Konopka: That’s exactly how it looks.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: You just mentioned one or two tools. Could you go into it a bit more precisely? You’ve already had some experience with remote work, what different things can you recommend?
Victor Wenzel: Very much. Of course it depends on the customer. Our customer, for example, has very high restrictions regarding the use of the tools. However, this is simply for licensing and data protection reasons. This will certainly not be the case with all customers. Nevertheless there are very good tools for the daily work with remote in teams. My colleague Jan has just mentioned the Microsoft Team as a chat function, but also as a video conferencing tool. In addition, there is also the WebEx tool, which is also well suited for video conferences or appointments with the help of video support. Another communication chat tool to be able to constantly exchange information is for example Rocket.chat or Jabber. There are some tools available. As already mentioned, it always depends on which tools the customer uses and for which tools he has a certain license. To briefly go into the motivational topic again, which Jan just reported about: There are still a lot of online games you can play, like Kahoot for example. Kahoot is a bit similar to quiz duels. You can ask questions interactively and vote in real-time within the team. This is very good for taking a break and playing a little game. Then, who does not know it from certain party evenings or game nights? Charades. This is also very well possible to hold the remote. You have a pot of words, of objects, of people standing imaginary pieces of paper that you have to try to explain without guessing certain words. It’s a bit like taboo on the verbal level. Furthermore, Fibbage is a very, very good game. It’s all about: who lies best? Which lie is best taken from a team member? What we also introduced in our teams is to hold a Funny Daily once a week. Agile coaches in the world know dailies. The Daily is the daily meeting to pick up the team from the work of each individual to clarify dependencies right at the beginning of the day. We’ve modified it a bit so that when you log into a communication tool of your choice that you use, in our case WebEx, you don’t log in with your real name, but instead you log in to a Funny Daily with the theme Man or Woman of the Year 2019, for example, which is last year’s Man or Woman of the Year, with the name of that chosen person. The other team members must then guess: Which team member is behind James Bond or Dirk Nowitzki or Angelina Jolie or similar? To get to know the characters of the team members, this Funny Daily is very suitable. It goes down very, very well with the teams. Of course, the time window of the normal Daily is clearly exceeded, but that’s fine then and of course deliberately chosen that way. As already mentioned in the beginning, this homeoffice remote work changes the whole routine appointments in length and duration. However, this is perfectly ok and one should accept it as it is.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Exciting. The Funny Daily sounds really funny. I was already an agile coach myself and important for the work are for example these meetings for improvement like retrospectives or workshops. And there you profit a lot from the individual opinions of the team members and you can exchange ideas in a good and honest way. What do you recommend in order to be able to do these things remotely well? How do you do that?
Jan Konopka: As Victor already said, with retros it sometimes depends a lot on which tools are allowed at the customer’s site. For example, we are currently working a lot with (Compliments?) and we structure and hold our retros on that. But there are other tools such as Retromat and similar other versions of it. This always depends very much on the customer, because in a retro you peddle data that can be critical to the company. And you always have to comply with the company’s data protection guidelines. It’s important to understand that when you use the tool in a team, it’s very easy to understand and doesn’t take as much time to explain its functionality to the team. Accordingly, the simpler, the better. But I always think it’s very important to have variety in the retros, so that you don’t always have the static, same retro. So that you don’t always get the same answers, you should play a little with creativity. With workshops, I think it’s a bit different. At the leading workshops on site, I think it’s especially important to keep the times themselves shorter, because the attention span diminishes after an hour. We have noticed this in our teams, so that we then say: We will now take a 15-minute break, everyone can get some fresh air, get a new coffee, and change their thoughts. Afterwards we meet again, so that you can work together for an hour and be fully concentrated. One of the difficulties is that you don’t do anything at the same time, like answering another mail or, or, or, or. Accordingly, I always find it very nice when my colleagues have their cameras on so that we can see each other personally. As an Agile Coach, you have the task of saying: “Hey, are you really still there? Are you paying attention? Or you can ask an interposed question and actively address your colleagues.
Victor Wenzel: In general, you can say that the camera tool is a very, very powerful tool for the Agile Coach to get the attention of the team members. That’s why it is always advisable to have the camera on at every meeting, be it a one-on-one meeting, a large workshop, a retrospective or a review. This is enormously important.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: One-on-one meeting is a good keyword. How do you take over such tasks of the Agile Coach, which for example actually consist of one-to-one or partial coaching sessions? As an Agile Coach, you should be able to, or would it be nice if you could, for example, identify problems in the team. That might be easier if you are on site and see how people interact with each other. It might also be easier to talk about things privately and personally. How does it work if you don’t have these face-to-face conversations? How do you solve this?
Jan Konopka: In general, I think it’s important to have continuous one-on-one conversations with each team member and to check his or her mood outside of the group in order to get into conversation easily. Generally, I always start with general things and only then go into the work topics and the mood of the colleague. However, I find that you notice this relatively quickly if you work with colleagues for a longer period of time. The only thing that is really important is that every colleague is different and you have to understand the cultural background of the person. I have many examples from my context and my teams that I could apply, but you learn that over time. I think it’s important to have one-on-one conversations and to ask colleagues from time to time how they are doing.
Victor Wenzel: I would like to go back to that. As we mentioned at the beginning, we work with different teams. My team consists of family members and I have found out that especially in the current situation of the Corona crisis there are many thoughts in the back of my mind which are partly more important from a human aspect. That’s why I started, as Jan just mentioned, to create and set up individual meetings, but then I noticed relatively quickly, also from the feedback of individual people, that especially in the current situation too many meetings are disturbing and not effective. They don’t achieve the outcome that one might wish for, because one has to focus on other things in the current situation. As Jan has just said, that is why it always depends on the person and the structure of the team. As also mentioned above, we work with people and not with any processes. You have to respond to each person individually. The work rhythm as well as the work itself is changing very, very much at the moment. At daily coffee-break meetings you can already hear a lot. And with a certain sensitivity, which you learn with time, you can already hear out some troublemakers, of course not the real problems, or you learn to hear out which member has a problem. And then you can ask again specifically: What is the problem? Where can we optimize this in any way? How can I support you so that you get less pressure from the side? What I want to say in conclusion is that you work with people and that should be in focus. Every person is different and especially in the current situation with the crisis in the back of your mind you should pay more attention to the individual needs of each person and maybe squeeze a little eye now and then.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Exciting. Many, many thanks to you. And also many thanks for taking the time. If we’ve also aroused your curiosity out there, and you might have questions about the implementation of digitization or remote work, please contact us at Info@mgm-cp.com, where we’ll be happy to answer any further questions. In any case, we look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for listening and see you soon.