Author: Craig Barker

March 2020’s Forrester report Agile, DevOps and COVID-19 asked: “Is COVID-19 a shock to agile practices?” The pandemic has left industries shaken, crumbled once healthy retail giants and caused havoc with supply chains. But how have businesses with an agile mindset fared?

Psychological safety in an agile environment

It’s easy to see how siloed teams might suffer during the pandemic when working remotely – as Forrester states, “siloed teams perform even worse when everything is remote.” Physical distance is one of the factors adding to the erosion of psychological safety in teams, which all companies are trying to avoid during prolonged periods of remote working.

Psychological safety is simply an individual’s ability to feel safe, accepted and understood within a team, able to have a sense of ‘self’ without fear of negative consequences pertaining to their status, self-image or career. This safety stems from team members feeling able to share their vulnerabilities and mistakes with each other.

This level of engagement and mutual trust is hard enough face to face, let alone when separated by miles of distance. Leading technology companies rate psychological safety as a top characteristic of a successful team according to a Gartner survey – but how do you let this prevail during the coronavirus outbreak?

Agile principles can help to reinforce psychological safety, and in the context of the pandemic in particular, can help prevent the effects of prolonged estrangement from your physical team – but there are challenges in the new normal, which we will explore. 

Place faith in your remote workers

The pandemic has enforced remote working, and employers have had no choice but to comply. But with the rise of remote working, so too comes a rise in uncertainty and possible distrust in workforces, as bosses are no longer able to keep an eye on employees at their desks. 

In a report from Raconteur just before lockdown, Barclays’s controversial employee-tracking system was explored which monitored time spent at desks. Unsurprisingly, it was met with hostility: “To believe that employees were going to accept such surveillance technology, especially with the pop-up warnings that appear if you are away from your desk for too long, was naive to say the least.” This is a clear example of where outdated command and control tendencies need to change, both inside and outside of the office. 

Here’s where an agile approach can add structure, and importantly add a level of implicit trust by placing faith in your workers without the need for forceful surveillance. In a report from Infosys, Remote Control: Leaders Can Use Agile Principles to Better Manage Work from Home, it’s stated: “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.” Teams can self-organise, which makes individual members feel accountable and therefore lowers the need for close monitoring.

Set manageable expectations

Just because you and your employees aren’t in the office, doesn’t mean company values and working ethics need to go out of the window. In some respects, they need to be made even more vital as the usual day-to-day hubbub of employee chatter and team building sessions aren’t happening.

Instead of overestimating an employee’s predicted output, agile framework allows for more introspective analysis, with a focus on reflection and continuous development. This better suits client’s needs, as projects invariably change course over time, making waterfall methodologies archaic and no longer fit-for-purpose. Infosys says, “Applying Agile principles to remote work has the promise to bring a similar structure — and benefits — to uncertain times.”

To this end, let your employees make their own priorities, within the constraints of project timelines. Giving your employees the onus on picking their priorities during an overarching timeline not only gives them accountability and helps their feeling of psychological safety, it lets them regain some much needed freedom with their day-to-day tasks. Focus on outcomes and roadmaps, and give your employees the ability to figure out the best, most effective route to reach them.

Feedback is a two-way street

Gone are the days of top-down management and one-sided conversations that serve to benefit the employer and not the employee. Giving your employees the space to discuss feedback with you, even outside of earmarked meetings, is vital to enhancing the feeling of psychological safety.

Water-cooler chat is hard to come by in the new remote, socially distanced age of 2020 – and small talk is just as important as constructive feedback sessions. Make sure you’re making time for your employees to feel safe and in a welcoming environment in which they can share this kind of feedback.

With its roots firmly in the technology sector after being created by software devs in 2001, agile often gets wrongly daubed with the brush of ‘just something software engineers use’ and no-one else. The benefits of agile aren’t exclusive to this realm of work, though: reports show that time to market, product quality and team productivity are improved across multiple sectors when agile principles are used correctly.

All arrows seem to point in the direction of an agile approach – and it’s not hard to see why. “Agile and lean are built on a foundation of continuous improvement: You need to inspect, learn from and adapt your performance to keep improving.” For times like these, when we are forced to work remotely and be physically estranged from one another, it’s important to have a strong foundation underpinning company behaviours.

To keep this important conversation flowing, we are hosting a webinar on Tuesday, 18th August on psychological safety. Discussing wellbeing for technical teams and asking the question ‘has lockdown eroded psychological safety?’, we will explore how leaders can reinforce this safety in the new normal. Click the link to sign up – we hope to see you there!


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Who contributed to this article

  • Craig Barker
    Co-Founder, BlackCat

    Craig Barker is BlackCat’s Chief Customer Officer and co-founder. He acts as the voice of the customer, ensuring the business remains focussed on their needs and that we always deliver the best possible outcomes. Craig also supports BlackCat’s engagement and delivery functions and can often be found guiding and coaching our teams, encouraging a culture of collaboration and learning. Craig’s background is technical. Prior to founding BlackCat with Simon Godden, he gained a first class honours degree in Computer Science from the University of Aston then built up almost 20 years experience in delivering innovative software across a variety of industry sectors. He’s an advocate of lean and agile methodologies and is happiest in the thick of the most complex of deliveries.