Social distancing, Spirit of Agility and the rise of Super Distributed Teams

The COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, causing unprecedented impact on people’s lives, families and communities. Every government & organisation usually has a business continuity plan, however, the magnitude of current crisis, no one saw coming. We’re discovering new ways of responding at every level – be it governments, companies, communities, families or individuals.

The way the events unfolded, we all observed how various governments & organisations responded & handled the outbreak so far. The speed at which things are evolving on daily basis, clearly demonstrates the spirit of agility. Obviously, the response is coming in different shapes and at different speed. From travel bans to total lockdowns and from washing hands to social distancing the measures that came into force are extra-ordinary. The direct impact of these measures is visible through stock markets, industrial slow down, travel cancellations and the unstoppable social media bombarding. This is nothing like we have ever seen before and it continues to unfold & inform our response day by day.

The indirect impacts are not visible first hand and may result in long term and permanent damage. Things such as travel & holidays is never going to be same for a long time. Social distancing or physical distancing can lead to loneliness, emotional vacuum and a horrifically low trust, low empathy society. According to Stanford’s Jamil Zaki, the same technologies that people once blamed for tearing society apart might be our best chance of staying together during the COVID-19 outbreak. He urges to use “distant socialising” instead of “social distancing”. He provided some great tips for staying connected with friend & family, socialising using tools and avoiding the feeling of loneliness.

As majority of countries and companies have most of their workforce working from home and practising physical distancing, we are entering an era of Super Distributed Teams. Leaders have a stiff job to connect, communicate and collaborate at a scale they never imagined before. It takes the challenges of globally distributed teams to another level and adds the complexity of emotional & psychological barriers because individuals are not only concerned about their work, they are also worried about their colleagues, families, kids, food, supplies & overall safety around them. My perspective on the Super Distributed Teams including what we can do to make them effective is detailed below.


Super Distributed Teams

We have all seen and worked in distributed teams. In 2012, when I invented a new term “De-Agile”  for applying agile methods to different models of distributed teams, the intent was to highlight the challenges and possible remedies of working in a globally distributed environment. In times of extended physical distancing, we are seeing next level of distributed teams. It’s no more about few teams in different time zones or countries.    

We are seeing various combinations due to physical distancing /WFH measures:

  1. Same building, different floors, different rooms
  2. Same city, different buildings, different floors, different rooms
  3. Different countries, different cities
  4. Split working arrangements (few individuals working from home, few from office)
  5. All Individuals working from remote (home)

Please note, this is not a comprehensive list – there may be additional combinations depending on how companies have enforced their BCP and the guidelines.

As the lowest common denominator shifted from teams to individuals, the increased complexity in terms of coordination and communication is simply awe-inspiring. The web is full of videos, blogs, articles, webinars about remote working tips and best practice. One such blog post from HBR details out the nitty-gritties of effectively managing global teams. I would add few additions as below:

  1. Be compassionate – As a leader and individual, it is critical to develop capability of offering the emotional support at a time like this. Remember, everyone is going through so much at this stage and true compassion can make wonders for everyone.
  • Communicate Often – utilize all communication channels and don’t assume that everyone in aligned. Provide clarity and purpose prior to defining work & goals.
  • Rework your Social Contract – Many agile teams follow a social contract that defines how team works together and what are acceptable behaviors. Whether you have a social contract or not, this is the time to define one as many teams are experiencing this scale of distributed working for the first time.

In summary, I would urge you to keep empathy before your KPIs when you deal with super distributed teams. The outbreak too shall pass, it’s up to us how we keep humanity alive during this crisis and beyond. Stay safe, stay healthy!

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