Yes, Agile Sprints Can Fit Into Hybrid Work Models

December 29, 2021

Contributor: Ashutosh Gupta

To make it work, offer plenty of flexibility but protect the sprint retrospective.

Moving from location-based work models to more human-centric designs can be a win-win for employees and organizations, but it takes intentional planning to ensure that the increased flexibility offered by hybrid work models drives better outcomes. The challenge around critical workstreams like agile sprints is a prime example.

“The agile work process is structured around key events and ceremonies that happen regularly — for example, a two-week scrum sprint that is repeated again and again. Certain activities happen on certain days, so it becomes even more important in a hybrid environment to get team members together based on critical, not arbitrary, moments,” said Graham Waller, Distinguished VP Analyst, during a presentation at Gartner Symposium/Xpo™ 2021.

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Well-designed hybrid work models provide employees with a degree of autonomy to work when, where and how they can be most productive. Agile sprints illustrate how workstreams can be highly effective in a hybrid world — but only when intentionally planned. 

Agile sprints in a hybrid world

The pandemic proved that agile sprints can be performed remotely, but hybrid models are becoming more permanent and can actually complicate these workstreams. As some people choose to return to the office or organizations opt to hire talent in new locations, there is potential for haphazard planning for agile sprints — which could be disastrous.

The key activities in a typical two-week agile sprint are sprint planning, daily scrum, backlog refinement, sprint review and sprint retrospective. The value of team members being physically together is lower for some activities (daily scrum and scrum review) than others (sprint retrospective). 

If you enforce a location-centric mandate that, for example, requires everyone to come to the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays, you could undermine productivity if those happen to be daily scrum days — ones when employees can be most productive working asynchronously at home. More importantly, you’re missing the opportunity to co-locate employees on your key sprint retrospective day. 

In hybrid work environments, poorly planned agile sprints could mismatch location and work requirements.

Human-centric design not only leverages flexibility to drive outcomes, it also seeks to amplify in-person moments by combining, for example, the sprint retrospective with onboarding, mentoring and team-building sessions.

Hybrid done well vs. hybrid done poorly 

While the agile-scrum example is a specific one, there are many ways to do hybrid well — or not. 

Hybrid done poorly is often location-centric. Common pitfalls include: 

  • Over-relying on instincts and obsolete assumptions 
  • Ignoring individual and team needs
  • Adopting a one-size-fits-all policy irrespective of the underlying workstreams

The net result is degraded talent and business outcomes. 

Hybrid done well is human-centric. It:

  • Trusts data, not instincts 
  • Flexes based on the underlying work
  • Provides people and teams autonomy to achieve outcomes 
  • Uses intentional collaboration options (i.e., all modes of synchronous and asynchronous work) to drive higher team innovation and unlock talent and business outcomes

Gartner research shows that compared to office-centric work design, a human-centric approach reduces fatigue by 44 percentage points, increases intent to stay by 45 percentage points and boosts performance by 28 percentage points.

When planned with intention, hybrid also furthers critical organizational goals such as innovation. Gartner research shows that the time employees spend working alone — whether seated next to someone else in an office or in a physically separate location — is just as important to innovation as synchronous modes of working. Organizations that intentionally offer employees access to all of the different modes of collaborating will reap the benefits.

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