Human Potential

Remote Control: Leaders Can Use Agile Principles to Better Manage Work from Home

Remote work will not suddenly disappear with the end of the current pandemic. After the COVID-19 lockdowns are over, employees will pressure their enterprises to allow for more work from home. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, working remotely was on the rise (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Remote working becoming more common even before COVID-19.

Remote working becoming more common even before COVID-19.

Source: Gallup State of the American Workplace

While working from home has grown more common, employers generally resist remote work as it creates what economists call a monitoring problem. These issues arise when the incentives for employees to “shirk or work” are out of alignment. Businesses hire supervisors when the cost of employees shirking is higher than the cost of the supervisor. Allowing employees to work remotely limits the effectiveness of supervisors to rebalance working and shirking.

In a remote-work world, Agile frameworks — practices that prioritize functional end products over following a plan — can re-align the work and shirk incentives.

A group of software developers created Agile principles in 2001 in response to the existing software development methods’ inability to react to changing requirements. A substantial and rapidly growing number of developers and companies like Apple and Philips use Agile regularly for software development and project management.

Implementing Agile frameworks has helped tech firms improve time to market, product quality, and team productivity. (As an economist, I could dive headfirst into a swimming pool of supporting stats and studies. For example, team sizes of five to nine tend to be the most balanced in the areas of productivity, quality, and responsiveness. However, smaller teams of three or fewer tend to have significantly higher productivity with significantly lower quality. Additionally, lowering the number of work-in-progress tasks per team member can lead to a 50% reduction in the time to market.)

That said, not all Agile principles can be utilized with remote work. For example, Agile's preference for face-to-face interactions will need to be replaced with video and voice chats.

Agile principles can be applied for other business functions, including help with the monitoring problems that arise with employees working from home:

  • Create project backlogs that have assignable tasks. Build logs with concrete outcomes that allow employers to measure the productivity of an employee or a team. This addresses the monitoring problem that comes with remote work.
  • Work in quick iterations and measure results frequently. Quick iterations on project tasks lets productivity be measured often. That allows supervisors to catch downturns in work output before they become insurmountable.
  • Measure results, not work hours. Gauge progress in terms of functional products created. Whether the product is software or a news article, the usability or functionality of the product is what matters. Time spent on the project is irrelevant as long as the product is functional.
  • Take introspective breaks between short periods of high productivity. Long periods of hyperproductivity lead to burnout, which causes a reduction in quality and higher turnover.
  • Reflect on the previous work cycle and discuss what went well and what did not. Make changes to adapt to the fluctuating work environment. Implementing learned best practices will help maintain a more consistent level of productivity regardless of the environment.
  • Allow teams to self-organize. Self-organizing teams will hold members accountable, reduce the need for monitoring, and tend to assign tasks to skills more optimally.

Allowing remote work holds benefits for employers. They can lower their office space footprint and thereby lower related expenditures. It can also lead to more satisfied employees, which reduces turnover and the need to hire and train new employees. Engagement is also greater among employees who spend some of their week working remotely (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Employees who work remotely 60-80% of the time are more engaged.

Employees who work remotely 60-80% of the time are more engaged.

Source: Gallup State of the American Workplace

Agile revolutionized software production. The linear-sequential lifecycle model, or waterfall model, of software development was not well suited to large projects because project activities did not change to match the evolving nature of the true customer requirements. The longer the project length, the worse the potential for project plans to vary widely from real-world needs. Agile principles created an environment of lower risk and higher adaptability to changing business conditions. Applying Agile principles to remote work has the promise to bring a similar structure — and benefits — to uncertain times.