Mike Bowler
Mike Bowler

For years, agile coaches have been touting the benefits of collocated teams and pointing out the inefficiencies of having people remote. When COVID-19 struck and everyone was required to work from home, we found that while teams certainly weren’t as effective as they’d been in the office, it wasn’t nearly as bad as had been anticipated. How do we make sense of this?

The first step is to get specific with our terminology. There are many possible configurations and what most corporate environments have previously referred to as “having remote people” is not the same as what we’re currently doing. Let’s define some of these configurations first.

  • Fully collocated: All sitting together with some logical or physical boundary between this team and the other teams. We are a single unit that works together.
  • Fully distributed: No two people seated in the same space. Everyone is remote from everyone else. This is a very traditional model for open source projects and has worked well there.
  • Partially distributed: Clusters of people can be found in certain locations. For example three people in one office with another four in a different office. Or most people in one location with one or two working from home.
  • Partially collocated: All sitting somewhat near to each other but with no logical or physical barriers so that one team bleeds into another. Open plan offices often encourage this kind of layout.

What we have been advocating for in the past are fully collocated teams. What we’ve been given in most corporate environments is either partially collocated or partially distributed. What we have today in isolation is fully distributed. All four of these are quite different.

Fully distributed teams aren’t new, although until now, they’ve certainly been in the minority. Past discussions about the merits of distributed teams have focused on partially distributed for this exact reason. Today, with the isolation brought by COVID-19, we have clear data points indicating that fully distributed can work well for just about any company.

An important aspect of fully collocated and fully distributed is that everyone has a level playing field. Everyone either has high bandwidth communication through face to face communication or lower bandwidth communication through video, email, etc. Everyone has the same tooling and the same advantages. In either of these configurations, the team will adopt tooling in a way that works for everyone and will optimize their behaviour for that.

With partially collocated or partially distributed teams, the playing field is uneven. Pockets of people have much higher bandwidth communication within that pocket than they do outside of it. This gives a natural advantage to some and a disadvantage to others. When the pocket of high bandwidth people is large enough, they have a natural tendency to forget the needs of the others, who are now left behind. In both of these configurations, it’s common to adopt tooling that works really well for the high bandwidth portion of the team and works very poorly for the rest. We see this at every large client we help.

What do we recommend?

All teams should be either fully collocated or fully distributed. The effectiveness of these two approaches is drastically better than the partial variants.

Where possible, and safely feasible, we still advocate for a fully collocated team because it has inate advantages over the other three kinds. Communication levels are higher for a variety of reasons and collaboration is easier. We recognize however, that there are often valid business reasons for having some people distributed and in this case we advocate for fully distributed teams. The evidence is quite clear that these fully distributed teams can also be highly effective.

Disclaimer: So long as there are public health concerns, we are not advocating anyone come together in groups. Recommendations for fully collocated teams obviously assume that any public health risk, such as COVID-19, has passed. The only sensible choice until then is fully distributed.

The COVID-19 crisis will shape our future team structure and we anticipate that it will be desirable to have more people remote than we’ve ever had before. While there will still be fully collocated teams, we anticipate there will be fewer of them and not concentrated as they have been, in dense areas of population.

There is no good business justification for either partially collocated or partially distributed. Both of these configurations are suboptimal and should be avoided. We’ve allowed ourselves to fall into these configurations for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time but that are not serving us now. The COVID-19 crisis is giving us an opportunity to reconsider choices like this and we should take advantage of that.