When the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis became apparent earlier this year, the search for new ways of working (NWW) took on a new urgency, having merely ambled along in the decade prior. Alternative arrangements such as remote work, hybrid workplaces and worker-driven scheduling suddenly seemed a lot less radical than they had in the past, and these were taken on board even by the most ardent remote work holdouts.

Prior to #Pandemic2020, remote or hybrid offices were more B-school buzzwords than widespread practice, notable exceptions such as Automattic, Buffer and Zapier notwithstanding. The basic comms infrastructure needed for remote arrangements — email, chat, mobile phones and web meeting platforms — had been in place for almost two decades, but companies were reluctant to part with physical infrastructure, despite its cost. Even large tech companies, seen as the cultural avant garde of business, ploughed enormous sums into state-of-the-art campuses in order optimise the culture and collaboration traditionally associated with physical proximity.

Not all business roles are of course amenable to remote or hybrid work arrangements. Nonetheless, the divergent responses of companies to the pandemic have been revealing. Some quickly came to wonder why they hadn’t seen the light earlier, while others begrudgingly let go of their physical workplaces, vowing to return at the soonest possibility. Meanwhile, sales of online surveillance tools soared, hinting that the challenge of online collaboration wasn’t the only concern for companies trying to make good of the transition. The ability to manage staff remotely, and the need to entrust workers with the authority to carry out their responsibilities from afar, also tested the capabilities and imaginations of many organisations.

Despite their extensive campuses and the speed at which COVID-19 struck, the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook were expected to go remote with relative ease, and given their soaring market performance this seems to have happened more-or-less to script. This is not simply because the business models of these firms are conducive to remote work, but also because these organisations are famed for their agile management philosophies, and for working in decentralised teams vested with decision-making authority. Tech’s Big 5 may place a high premium on face-to-face collaboration and the prestige of world-class campuses, but they also have the comms and project management tools, and the entrusted and empowered teams, needed to ace remote work.

It can be tempting to dismiss tech companies as special cases when it comes to remote and hybrid work. However, companies such as the Big 5 are agile because they obsess over agility and see it as crucial to their value proposition, not because they have somehow fallen into agility by chance. Author and agile management guru Steven Denning puts it this way:

The whole story is obviously a long and complicated one. But the root cause of their [the Big 5’s] success is that they adopted the core principles of Agile management. They set aside the 20th Century goal of maximizing shareholder value and instead adopted an obsessional focus on creating value for customers, using small self-organizing teams and operating as networks.

In other words, ‘agility’ is much more than a fashionable tech buzzword; rather, it’s a conscious strategy involving the way both customers and employees are viewed. This is why it came as no surprise to anyone that Twitter and Atlassian quickly moved to allow their employees to work from home ‘forever’. Atlassian might be a specialist developer of agile software, but it also embraces and advocates for agile as a whole-of-company management practice. In a  white paper entitled Beyond the Basics of Scaling Agile, Atlassian explains the philosophy:

Scaling agile is a complex, multidimensional topic. It involves changing people (skills and mindset), practices (rituals and habits), and tools (used with consistency and discipline) to improve collaboration and the organization’s ability to execute against its strategy. Ultimately, these changes will create greater transparency and alignment around work, and help to hard-code the values and principles of agile into the entire DNA of an organization. The road to enterprise agility can be treacherous, but the journey is worth it (p4).

While it would be wrong to understate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, before the pandemic most companies were already lagging the leading tech firms not just on the technology front, but also in the implementation of flexible work practices, distributed teams and agile operations. Too few businesses outside technology — and some technology firms themselves — have spent time considering how companies such as Microsoft and Atlassian generate value as organisations, instead dismissing them as outliers. In many ways, the risk today is that the pandemic is used as a fig leaf to cover deficiencies in work practices that long antedate the current crisis.

Agility in Theory and Practice

As outlined in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, penned in 2001, the notion of agility originally concerned itself with the responsive development and delivery of software. The original approach emphasised iteration, speed, collaboration, simplicity, self-organisation and ongoing reflection, all seen as crucial for providing customers with a competitive advantage through better software.

Almost two decades on, many of these ideas have been absorbed into the general management vernacular. Outside software development circles, being ‘agile’ implies being able to recognise and adapt quickly to new information or ‘signals’. These signals can range from information about a market segment to information about worker sentiment, and may be salient enough to necessitate swift action or even strategic organisational change.

The challenge here is not agility as a general concept — most people get that it means being nimble and responsive — but the organisational practice of being able to recognise, interpret and respond to signals. The ‘doing’ of agility is challenging because it takes a high degree of trust and support to delegate decision-making authority and grant autonomy to teams and individuals across an organisation. The maths is simple enough: if every employee is entrusted with spotting key signals and responding to them quickly and authoritatively, an organisation will be far more agile than if this task is left with a select few managers tucked away in offices somewhere.

In the post-COVID-19-era, organisations will need to be more agile and more trusting than ever before just to survive the pandemic economy, let alone compete with those who are already benefiting from agility. The first step along this road involves recognising that the signals have changed: no more water cooler talk to eyeball people and notice the deep-set furrow on their brows; no more laps around the office to hear the sighs and groans, heated conversations or signs of distress; no more ‘yipees’ from closed sales or excited lunchtime chatter; no more knowing that Mary is often late because she needs help with childcare, or that Fred has a nasty cough and should probably take a long weekend; no more noticing that management is taking a dismissive tone or that certain groups of workers are being ostracised. None of that. We’re dealing with a whole different set of signals here, and on this basis alone the old ways of operating are unlikely to prove sufficient.

Embracing Agility as a Way Forward

In research following the GFC of 2008-2009, McKinsey found that the companies which show resilience during downturns are those which make decisions with speed. Such companies are able to do everything faster, from divesting non-core business activities and raising capital for acquisitions, to removing layers of organisational bloat in order to reduce costs. The current recession might be well-advanced, but there are still plenty of gains to be had from agility right now. Agile is not a project for next time; it is a way of producing more with less today, and for helping clients do the same.

Furthermore, one of the most productive things that an organisation — or indeed individual — can do in the face of grim forces such as a recession is to position for better times ahead. Recessions come and recessions go; should we be fortunate enough to survive with our businesses intact, the question of how we used this time is one that will rightly be asked as we look back on #Pandemic2020. By implementing greater agility now, organisations can position for economic recovery. For ambitious businesses, this represents an opportunity to leapfrog competitors and climb the market pecking order. Encouragingly on this front, in research on recessions prior to the GFC, MicKinsey also found that, “About half of the [high-tech] companies that entered these downturns as leaders — the top 20 percent — ended up as laggards when the economy regained momentum.”

Perhaps just as importantly, a shift in business culture signals better days ahead to stakeholders and publics, including employees, clients and investors. Few forces have greater capacity to drive humans through adversity than hope and anticipation. If ever there was a time for drawing on lofty human ambitions and uplifting visions of the future, it is now.

The Single App that Powers Business Agility

Yoomiapp was designed to subtly facilitate a move to agile working practices. By encouraging employees to communicate more honestly more often, Yoomiapp brings employees into the centre of the business conversation, and in turn encourages managers to listen, share and divest responsibility.

One of the clever ways Yoomiapp encourages this is through its uplifting design and simple push-button process. Each Yoomi pressed represents a complex emotional state which encodes a great deal of information — often as much as a lengthy conversation — yet requires minimal effort and can be carried out spontaneously within the flow of work. Fast, in-flow communication is honest and meaningful; much more like exchanges that take place in collaborative small teams with high levels of trust and openness than old-school manager-employee discussions and emails, which involve extensive self-censoring.

Yoomiapp then helps managers prioritise these signals at a glance, greatly reducing their burden and allowing them to manage issues early and often. Other features include a goal-setting module, ad hoc surveying capabilities, and the ability to track longitudinal data. This means Yoomiapp is ideally configured for companies looking to drive organisational agility without adding Yet Another Software Suite (YASS).

Yoomiapp’s product road map is an exciting one, and we’ve learned a lot from the pandemic, as painful as the experience has been for us all. We believe our solution is more urgent than ever before, and with agility central to the success of remote and hybrid work, our in-hand app — bringing together engagement, performance and wellbeing — is perfectly suited to today’s workplace challenges.

Looking back, we all might have moved on agile a lot earlier. But there may never be a time more conducive to transformative action than the present.

Yoomiapp are an exhibitor on the HRTech247 Employee Engagement floor. You can visit their HRTech247 exhibition stand here.