Agile & Digital

Do we have to be face to face to be agile?

Agile methodology stresses the importance of collocated teams who can work face to face and meet every morning. But do we really need to be face to face to be agile, and if so what are the consequences of this?

There is no doubt that collocation can remove barriers to collaboration. Even with the many technologies available to communicate and collaborate today there are some challenges from managing time zones to communicating through technology and building trust with people you don’t meet face to face.

All of these can be resolved but they do require different skills (we have trained over 100,000 people around the world in the skills of virtual working over the last 25 years, so we know).

However moving to collocated teams can cause other problems (we started using virtual teams for good reasons)

  • It can be expensive moving the right people to the same location and may reduce access to talent – not everyone will want to move their lives to your location, no matter how nice it is.
  • It risks making your innovations mono-cultural. If only one location is represented you may lack access to the perspectives of your diverse markets and customers and the team can develop a very similar mindset and experiences. Collocated teams are likely to be less culturally and cognitively representative.
  • It generates an “us and the them” mentality when changes are driven from one location and local entities are relegated to implementation only.
  • It may limit your ability to respond quickly to needs from locations in other time zones.
  • Face to face working may be less effective in some areas with a tendency to more distractions and more meetings (that’s why remote workers are usually more productive)

We believe these are serious shortcomings and also that collocation rarely meets the realities of the large organizations we work with. Not all work in a complex organization can or should be driven from a particular location. There may be some areas where collocation can help with a specific activity, particularly in intensive research efforts, but even then we need to be aware of the consequences.

As other parts of the organization adopt agile working we see teams using this as a rationale (or excuse) for moving team members to one location when this may be a expensive and positively harmful to the operation of the teams.

We recommend using collocated teams very selectively. In other areas, by developing the skills of virtual working we can overcome the challenges and retain the advantages of engaging a broader and diverse group of colleagues in different locations.

You can see more about how we develop virtual leadership and collaboration skills in our bite sized learning paths here.

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