Remember mid-March 2020, when the world shut down to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? At that time, agile software developers and other companies had to wait helplessly for tools like Zoom and Slack to be invented so their teams could collaborate from their homes.

If you don’t remember things happening that way, it’s because they didn’t

Video conferencing, chat, file-sharing, and other tools have been available for years, and countless companies have used them to enhance communication and collaboration. Once the pandemic hit, many of those companies quickly pivoted to using the tools as their go-to work-from-home enablers.

But can these tools replace co-located collaboration effectively over the long term? Or do they make teams less agile?

Most people would say remote-work tools are a poor substitute for in-person collaboration. Nevertheless, they are a necessary evil these days. If your team is struggling to maintain agile best practices in an age of remote work, there are some things you can do to address that problem.

Yes, working from home has made agile work more challenging in some ways

While videoconferencing and other tools undoubtedly made it easier for companies to shift to remote work, these tools weren’t designed to replace in-person collaboration. It didn’t take long for problems to arise.

Constantly looking at and talking to teammates through a computer screen is exhausting. So much so that the term “Zoom fatigue” entered the common vernacular. Experts have long known that too much time spent staring at a computer screen can cause problems like headaches, eye irritation, blurred vision, and general fatigue.

In addition, videoconferencing tools make many aspects of collaboration more difficult. Certain types of meetings are all but impossible online. Informal “watercooler” discussions and the big meetings to collaborate on big decisions are very difficult using remote tools. Spontaneity, open discussion, and broad input are challenging when everyone’s looking at a gallery of thumbnail images on their screens.

Even the simple acts of setting up and running a meeting are a little harder. Every day, variations of the following interactions are repeated countless times:

User A: Can you join my room?

User B: No, I thought we would join mine, and I'm already in it.

User A: Sorry, I can't see anything. Are you sharing?

User B: Sorry, I shared the wrong window.

User A: Can you give me presenter rights?

User B: It says that you're already a presenter.

User A: Can you please stop sharing so I can share?

But the main problem with remote work tools is that they can’t replace old-fashioned, face-to-face communication. Screen sharing is almost always a monologue. Team members are often assigned as passive viewers and struggle to get their ideas across or give instructions.

Facial cues, posture, and voice inflection communicate untold volumes of information in the blink of an eye. Video calls are a nice, temporary replacement, but the added time and effort that goes into simple communication accumulates over time, ultimately delivering diminishing returns.

All of that tedium makes the work of agile software development using remote-work tools very, very difficult. Fixing bugs, trying to come up with novel ideas and solutions, solving outages, aligning on sophisticated concepts — these are all much heavier lifts when teams have to rely on Zoom to communicate.

Agile development practices were developed with co-located teams in mind. Traditionally, such teams thrive when they’re co-located with their coworkers. This is because co-location supports frequent in-person contact to quickly build trust, simplify problem-solving, encourage instant communication, and enable fast-paced decision-making.

While co-location helps develop these close working relationships, the truth is that the agile teams that started out remote from day one can be just as effective. However, the sudden transition of co-located teams to a fully remote approach can reduce cohesion and efficiency. This has led to an alarming drop in productivity for more than 200,000 software developers worldwide.

In fact, according to a recent report from The Information, Google’s internal data shows that just 31% of their engineers surveyed said they were highly productive, an 8-point decrease from their record-high in March 2020.

Clearly, remote work is less than ideal for agile teams — at least, the way it’s being used by many companies now. But can things be better?

With the right tools, agile + remote work is possible, or even more productive

Many agile teams are very familiar with tools like Zoom and Slack. In fact, the tools have been a driving force behind some teams’ agility.

Video conferencing tools, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Jitsi Meet, are ideal for formal meetings and sales presentations and allow people to gather quickly without travel. Chatting programs like Slack allow quick, informal information sharing and contact without flooding inboxes. These tools can actually increase the speed at which teams collaborate by removing some of the barriers of time and location.

In fact, we are finding that agile makes remote work easier in many ways. Many companies that have already embraced agile have experienced a smoother transition into remote work. These companies believe that having agile principles already in place has made their teams more effective than if they had not been agile.

Agile developers are finding that they can use video conferencing for sprint planning meetings, sprint demos, and even daily stand-ups. Some companies are getting creative and using chat tools to facilitate small talk and build office culture.

While remote tools may never completely replicate the benefits of co-location, using the right remote tools can still be used to enhance productivity and collaboration. However, remote work tools have long been seen as noisy and disruptive. They have many drawbacks, which are now being magnified because people are constantly using them.

Working from home is a necessity (for now) — here’s how to make the tools work best for your teams

Remote work is likely here to stay, at least for a while, so companies need to find ways to make the most of these tools and minimize their drawbacks. With that in mind, there are many ways to leverage the available work-from-home tools to maintain your teams’ productivity. Or even enhance it.

You’ll just need to find what works best for your company and your team.

Prioritize asynchronous workflows

The drawbacks of remote work tools aren’t with the tools themselves; it’s that they’re being used to replace in-person interactions entirely.

To counter this, companies should use the tools only when they can really add value. GitLab, for example, has processes in place to keep video calls to a minimum. According to their company communication guidelines, they emphasize documenting conclusions of offline communication, turning to synchronous video calls only after going back and forth several times.

In other words, they use video calls only when necessary, instead using chat, email, and other forms of asynchronous communication to minimize disruption.

Adapt your agile practices to remote-work dynamics

Remote work is just different from co-located work in almost every way. And, according to McKinsey, it doesn’t make sense to superimpose the way you used to operate — your schedule and processes — onto a remote work setting.

Instead, according to Smartsheet, you’ll need to adjust your approach to meetings to meet the needs of your remote teams. That means adjusting times, documenting decisions, finding ways to keep teams engaged, and maintaining calendar transparency.

You should also find ways to maintain a sense of regularity by keeping weekly touch points, daily stand-ups, and other regular touch points you used to have. This will help maintain some semblance of structure and normality in decidedly abnormal times.

Finally, you should remember that communication dynamics are very different than when everyone was in the office. People simply don’t listen and learn online the way they do in person. This makes the practice of over-communicating and repeating critical. It may seem overbearing and unnecessary, but it’s the only way to make sure there are fewer misunderstandings.

Establish and nurture your company culture online

Of all the ways remote work can be detrimental to a company, culture is most at risk when distributed work isn’t done well. Co-located teams tend to establish and maintain a culture naturally, with a little help from leadership.

That’s much more difficult for remote teams, so you have to be much more intentional about creating, maintaining, and nurturing the company culture you desire. For example, a “virtual open-door policy” helps to create a culture of open communication among remote teams. You can also explore ways for employees to get together for fun, after-work events, or online gatherings.

Taking these steps to nurture your company culture through a period of remote work, whether it’s a few more months or forever, will help establish trust among your teams and will align them to common goals and priorities, all of which is critical to effective agility.

Yes, work-from-home tools can make your team less agile — if you let them

Disruptions are simply a fact of life. We currently are in one of the most significant disruptions in most of our lifetimes, but it won’t be the last one. More challenges, big and small, are sure to come in the years ahead.

As an agile organization, you were made for times like this. The agile approach is empowering, and it allows employees to work more autonomously, and that makes you better prepared to adapt to drastic changes.

Getting the most out of your teams in an age of working from home requires that you take full advantage of the tools available. More importantly, it means adapting your processes and culture to match the reality in which we all find ourselves.

With an agile approach and an understanding of how to use work-from-home tools to their fullest, you’ll be ready for whatever disruptions and challenges the future may hold.