Agile development, Agile management: How to keep teams productive, wherever they are

A distributed model of Agile working can help staff connect and collaborate regardless of whether they are in the office or not.

Consultant Deloitte says forward-thinking CIOs are distributing Agile practices across global teams and creating flexible enterprise IT departments that deliver great results quickly, while a recent report by digital transformation consultancy Contino and Tech London Advocates suggests tech chiefs are helping to change mindsets, introduce new processes, and redefine their business's digital capabilities.

Gary Delooze, CIO at building society Nationwide, has spent the past 12 months helping his globally disparate IT organisation to embrace what he refers to as a distributed Agile way of working to help counter the challenging circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.

While he's always been a keen advocate for Agile, his team's use of the working style – which involves the application of the principles of Agile software development to business-related tasks – ratcheted upwards during 2020. 

SEE: What is Agile leadership? How this flexible management style is changing how teams work

Evidence suggests that's been a growing trend during the past 12 months. Experts claim Agile management produces benefits in two key ways: it gives workers the empowerment that research suggests they crave, and it frees up leaders to focus on higher-level tasks, such as refining strategy and developing new business models. The challenge for Deeloze now is to keep up that momentum in his organisation.

"So we are now challenging ourselves to say, 'Well, we did it through the pandemic, what's stopping us doing it that way forever?'. That's really challenging some foundational thinking and we've changed some of our models and ways of working," he says.

The company's first distributed Agile teams worked out of the company head's offices in Swindon. The IT department's workers are now spread across a series of Agile teams working in not just Swindon, but also in London, India, from home and even from the firm's branch network.

"They're using collaborative technology and they're now doing daily standups through Microsoft Teams; they're working in a fully remote way," he says. "I thought doing Agile in that manner would be one of our biggest challenges. We seem to have – I'm not going to say we've fully cracked it – got the majority of the way to making that work really well."

One explanation for this successful shift is necessity. Like other CIOs, Delooze recognises that a big move to a distributed work model before the pandemic would have required a long period of thinking, including analysis, debate and executive agreement.

That drawn-out process changed in 2020 as COVID-19 created a need for rapid change. Rather than considering how employees might potentially work in a distributed way, the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing requirements meant the organisation simply had to work in an Agile way. "And we've worked very hard to make that work," says Delooze.

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Delooze: "We are now working in a way that is much more Agile."

Image: Nationwide

Teams work on a range of digital transformation initiatives. Project progress and best-practice lessons are shared via virtual whiteboards and collaboration toolsets. 

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

Delooze says Nationwide uses Atlassian's Jira and Confluence tools to track the work that various projects team are doing. The technology also help team members take notes, log technical details, and share details across the different part of the organisation.

"We're using the tools to help us work remotely. We have one set of tools that span all of our teams in those hubs. People can be working wherever; most of them at the moment are working from home," he says.

"So even in India, we have developers working from home and accessing the network and working for us in that environment, and being part of our daily standup and delivering work as if they were in the office. So it is properly distributed Agile."

Delooze and his colleagues came up with novel ways to distribute tasks and keep serving the building society's members. That process included using branches as mini-contact centres, where staff answered customer service enquiries from their desks.

"We had to change our operating model a little bit," says Delooze, explaining how, once again, necessity sponsored the adoption of new ways of working. "One of the things that we looked very closely at was, if we can't take the number of calls in the contact centre that we need, can we use our branch network?"

Staff at Nationwide branches were able to use web chat to deal with customer service enquiries from across the UK. This sudden switch in operating model wasn't just a success in the short term. Delooze says the success of this transition has now kicked off a strategic piece of work at the company to examine the role of branches going forward.

That's a potentially important piece of work, not just for the people who work in these branches but also for the communities they serve. Research suggests UK banks and building societies have closed (or scheduled the closure) of 4,188 branches since January 2015, at a rate of around 50 each month.

The UK's Financial Conduct Authority has called on banks to reconsider further branch closures amid fears that vulnerable customers could be left without access to services. Delooze hopes his society's new tech-led operating model might help keep the branch network alive.

"We are very committed to keeping presence on the high street; it's something that is at the core of who we are and what we do," he says. "So, therefore, if we can use the branches to also take calls, reduce the footprint of the contact centre, and we can make those branches multipurpose, that gives us more support for keeping those branches alive and keeping our customer-facing frontline services in place."

So while the coronavirus pandemic has created a significant challenge for Nationwide, part of the key to overcoming these issues has been the society's foresight regarding digital transformation and the adoption of new working methods. That's something that Delooze says will help stand the organisation in good stead for the future.

"We are now working in a way that is much more Agile in that sense of the word, but we're really focused – what's the outcome we're going to deliver, how quickly can we do that, and let's crack on and do it."