Does colocation matter anymore? Measuring agile teams performance post-COVID-19 lockdown


Jonathan Postans
Delivery Lead, BJSS Bristol

Following the UK Government announcement of enforced lockdown measures on 23rd March 2020, our software delivery teams at BJSS Bristol immediately switched to remote working practices.

As our current leader on project delivery and a long-time advocate of agile philosophies and methodologies (where colocated working is a key tenement to delivery success), I have been keenly monitoring our teams performance for fear of slippage and missed milestones. So far, the results have been a welcome surprise.

Focusing on the velocity reporting of 8 of our teams from the beginning of February to the first week of May, some clear trends have emerged. Looking at the period right after lockdown measures were introduced, 6 of the teams had an immediate, significant hike in delivery. Other positive statistics include:

  • 7 of the 8 teams have reported their most successful sprint to date during lockdown
  • 6 of the 8 teams have had an increased average velocity in the past 5 weeks during lockdown, compared to the previous 5 weeks prior to lockdown

So why does delivery seem to have improved despite the lack of colocated activities? There’s a multitude of possible theories and reasons for this, which I’ve grouped into four areas:

Increased capacity — Obviously commuting is no longer required for our teams to work, plus most employees have been forced to cancel or reduce holidays due to travel restrictions. We’ve thankfully also seen less sickness. When you combine all of these, we’ve simply had more availability of our staff on projects.

Rising to the occasion — As many of our staff already enjoyed the benefits of occasional working from home, we challenged them as we transitioned to demonstrate that delivery would not slip. This is potentially the main reason for the immediate lockdown hike. Additionally, in these challenging economic times, when many companies are struggling, not to mention the heroics being performed by people on the front line, delivering on our commitments is relatively straightforward in comparison.

Digitally prepared — Our core business is delivering software from our project centres and whilst we visit most of our clients on a weekly basis, the lion’s share of what we produce already had an element of remoteness to it. Being able to work on platforms, environments and codebases from our offices is a prerequisite to starting projects and we are very fortunate we only had to move this one step further to our own homes. Add to that the plethora of wonderful collaborative tools in our armoury — ZoomSlackTeamsDriveTrelloJIRAMiroMuralJamboard…etc. In short, we were ready to collaborate in distributed locations.

Individual gains — Following a series of ‘Ways of Working from Home’ retrospectives, the overwhelming feedback from our engineers was that they were able to remain more focused on their work, due to a lack of distractions (ping pong anyone?) and most were able to work in a quieter environment than the office, which can be befitting to the complexity of programming tasks. (If you are someone who misses that office ambience, be sure to checkout for some light relief). Furthermore, having something to focus on in these anxiety-inducing times is a welcome distraction to many.

For all the positives we have seen, there are clearly many downsides with remote working, many that are harder to measure like how you build effective relationships and improve communication. Thankfully, most of our teams were already in ‘norming’ or ‘storming’ group phases and projects were well underway. When we start a new engagement, we will have a fresh set of challenges, not only around delivery but how we complete design and analysis tasks that are generally performed on location with our clients. We will also be closely monitoring our current engagements to see if the current trends continue.

Post lockdown, when offices are reopened, especially if some distancing measures remain in place, it’s likely a hybrid model will emerge, where entire teams converge in the office on the same days of the week, particularly when planning and whiteboarding activities are needed. Remote working will form an equal part of the week, empowering workers by entrusting them to deliver, whilst allowing them the additional time, focus and benefits of being at home. Even for those who prefer to be in the office environment, team meetings will be on collaborative communication channels to ensure everyone has the same experience.

What have been your experiences on delivery before and after lockdown? Will there be a lasting impact on how we produce software? What new movements can we expect to emerge?