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The Novel Corona Virus struck without warning, bringing with it a pandemic of the disease called Covid-19. The situation in China, where it started, is showing signs of improvement. The situation in Europe (especially Italy and Spain) and the USA is alarming and becoming worse. India is just entering the 3rd stage of the spread – so far things are under control, but people are keeping their fingers crossed.

Most of the offices, especially those of the technology sector companies, are shut. All associates have been asked to work from home. Everyone is taking a well-earned, though forced, break, and is working from home.

Here is an extract from PM Power’s upcoming book, The Five Tantras of Enterprise Agility. The extract discusses the problems faced by people who are facing forced dispersal and how can they cope with it.

That morning, Dr Vishnusharman, an Agile coach who was also working from home, got a call from Sudarshanaa, the CEO of a large software organisation. He was pleased to hear her voice.

“Dr Vishnusharman, how is social distancing working for you?”

“Great to hear from you. Pretty well so far. I am making a lot of progress on my book; you know the one I am writing on Enterprise Agility. What about you?”

“Am doing pretty well too. I was having a video call with our HR Head on the effects this forced dispersal has had on our associates, and how Agile works in such a situation. I just got off the call. I thought that, maybe I could pick your brain on this, if you have the time.”

“I have all the time in the world.”

Sudarshanaa said, “You know, Agile teams are about effective teamwork. While classical Agile models prefer co-located teams, many have evolved to handle distributed teams as well. As you know, for example, we have offices all over the world, and we have two large centres. Of course, most of our software work is done in one or the other development centre, but there are situations, especially where we need to move changes across various versions and instances of the platform, where we do need to work across centres.”

“That’s true.”

“Our Agile way of working, with self-organising teams and transformational leadership styles, has helped us to ensure that where these is distribution of work across units, the development happens in an effective manner.”

She continued, “But now, the pandemic gripping the world has made teams not only distributed, but more dispersed, that too, without an option to be otherwise.”

Vishnusharman smiled and said, “In the chemistry domain, dispersal make a solution homogeneous, while in this situation, dispersal of teams causes disruption! Individuals and teams now need to think of ways to become extremely fractal – and yet be cohesive.”

Sudarshanaa said, “That’s true. Though, I suppose our specific actions and priorities will depend on our context and the readiness of our teams.”

“Correct.”

“However, a few tips from what you have observed in teams, and being effective – that might be useful for us.”

“Okay, I’ll talk about what the organisation should expect, and do, and also about what the associates should expect, and do. I will talk about them in no specific order.”

“Okay.”

“The first thing that we have to realise – and this follows from what we talked earlier about valuing the associates as much or more than the customer – is that the customers understand the situation we are all in. And they know any response or support they receive will be constrained by this dispersed situation. Safety of the associates and society will need to take priority over customer needs. And associates need to be made aware of this.”

“That is absolutely right.”

“The other thing that customers and management need to realise is that, since this is a forced dispersal, associates may not have had time to set up their home office to the same ergonomic or technological standards (for example connectivity speed, quality of monitors etc.) as in their regular office. This again may mean, at least initially, a significant loss of productivity. Over time, of course, familiarity with the way of working will make things better.”

“That is a good point. We need to factor this aspect into our reckoning. I suppose that the other aspect of this forced dispersal is that many of our associates are young singles sharing accommodation with others, or staying as a paying guest with a host family. They may not have much control on the infrastructure that they can create to effectively work from home. We are aware of this.”

Vishnusharman said, “And they are eating from restaurants and other public places, always anxious whether they will have to take Ms Corona home with them!”

Sudarshanaa said, “Yes. And they may not have made close enough friends to talk to about these worries. We have to factor these in when we think of productivity and also about customer demands. Of course, the folks at the customer end may also be in a similar situation.”

Vishnusharman said, “One of the key things that the leaders can do in these situations is communicate. They have to make sure everyone is up to date on the latest information regarding the organisation and work, and the outside world, including the pandemic.”

He continued, “The other key thing that management must do is to emphasise the value of trust – ‘we all trust you and we hope you trust us.’ Certainly, this will be helped by the relationship associates have built up over the time they have worked together – but remember, many of the associates may be new.”

“I agree. Without trust among the associates, this dispersed working cannot be effective.”

Vishnusharman said, “One of the important bonding mechanisms at work – the water cooler moments – will be sorely missed by the dispersed associates. So, associates should try to create these moments through random videos calls with a couple of their co-associates and talk about last evening’s (video!) game, girlfriends/boyfriends, politics, movies etc., (which, in normal circumstances may not be considered proper in an office environment!) It is very critical that they do this, especially the single man or woman, to bring in sanity to their life. For single person, an office provides the environment to feel ‘though solitary, not alone.” Being dispersed should not take away this ‘comfort-feel’ from them.”

Sudarshanaa said, “What would be some of the more mundane things that associates should inculcate into their way of working so that they are effective in their work?”

Vishnusharman said, “The first thing to remember is that, if you are a family person, with responsibilities around the house, you need to make sure that you slot in time for this. Remember that your partner at home may be in the same situation. And if there are children (and they have no school!), it is even more critical that associates make sure that they are able to spend adequate time in both professional and home work, with a proper work-life balance. And remember, the normal child-care facilities may not be available, so maybe, you may have to have arrangements with neighbours to help each other out.”

Sudarshanaa smiled and said, “I remember a Dilbert cartoon a long time ago where Dilbert, who was working from home wonders whether he owes the organisation the contracted eight hours or only the five hours of work he would have accomplished if he had gone to office to work!”

Vishnusharman said, “People normally are not productive all eight hours of their office time. So, five or six hours at home, undisturbed, should be equivalent to the eight at office.”

“Of course, many people will save some time by not having to commute to work. This time can be put to good use as ‘social’ or ‘family’ time.”

“Correct.”

He continued, “One of the most important things that teams working in this dispersed fashion needs to know is that team norms and agreements are extremely important in these situations. I am sure you know what team norms are. These norms concern how members of the team will conduct themselves in interactions with one another. For example; team members will not be late for meetings; they will reply to emails within 24 hours etc. They also talk of higher aspects, like: team members will avoid office politics; they will treat one another with respect; they will be open with their colleagues; they may disagree with group decisions, but have to commit to them, etc.”

“I understand. It is important, especially in these dispersed situations, to ensure that people follow these norms. Else frustrations can start appearing.”

Vishnusharman said, “Correct. And talking of frustrations, it is important that people publicize when they are available to be disturbed and when not, so that people don’t call each other at the drop of a hat. But it is important that everyone is available for everyone else.”

Vishnusharman continued. “It is also important that all the normal Agile ceremonies are gone through, using video conferencing. You now, stand-ups, retros etc. etc. with the scrum masters playing their normal role. Other standard things like pairing, backup working etc. should also be done normally.”

Sudarshanaa said, ‘I suppose it is also important that people update each other continuously on what they are doing and are up to – using planning and tracking boards. Also use Slack and other online real-time tools to keep each other updated on other activities, and needs.”

Vishnusharman said, “It is also important to have fun: maybe one joke a person per day? maybe some limericks (making sure it is appropriate!); maybe some games that people can play with each other and as a team; maybe share some songs. It is also important that people, even if they can’t go out, look out and enjoy the fresh green leaves of the spring, the mango flowers and the jacaranda in bloom.

Sudarshanaa said, “Yes. All these things are important. The main thing is, isn’t it, to keep ones’ spirits up and believe in the well-known adage, ‘This too shall pass’?”

“Yes. You have got that right. ‘The corona scare too, as everything else in life, shall pass, maybe in a month, maybe in two months…”

“Thank you for talking to me, Sir. Hope you have a good day.”

“It was my pleasure. You too have a good day.”

Paramu Kurumathur