When COVID-19 hit, flexible agile philosophies seemed perfect for companies weaving a path through its disruption – but as Dropbox repurposes offices to make remote working permanent, some worry that the isolation of ‘COVID-normal’ could break one of agile’s core tenets.

More than 80 per cent of company leaders plan to continue enabling remote working for the long term, a recent Gartner survey found, while 94 per cent said they would limit face-to-face meetings.

Such distancing is crucial from a public health perspective but challenges the presumption of collaboration that underlies agile – a software-development approach introduced years ago as a 12-point manifesto and now a ubiquitous business catchcry.

Agile methods – which have been credited with helping businesses innovate faster, adapt to change better, and reduce internal friction – lean heavily on physical closeness to maintain commonality of purpose, support iterative innovation, and ensure faster resolution of problems as they arise.

By putting cross-disciplinary project teams in the same room, the methodology reasons, projects evolve faster and more purposefully – but what happens when remote working is the new normal and distance makes physical co-location all but impossible?

Remote work, all the time

It’s an issue that companies like Dropbox are confronting head-on.

“For solo and individual work, we believe that you don’t need to go to an office and sit at your desk,” says Le Tran, Dropbox director of communications for APAC and Japan.

Tran is one of the 3,000 worldwide employees who will next year transition completely to a ‘Virtual First’ way of working as Dropbox repurposes its offices and forces its employees to work from home.

A flexible-hours policy will only expect employees to be available to others from 9am to 1pm, with workers able to plan and execute the rest of their days as they need.

It’s a different approach, Tran explains, to the hybrid remote/in-office working models embraced by Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Square and other firms across a range of industries.

While most companies will let employees choose whether and how they work from home, Dropbox’s plan will repurpose offices and instead provide a network of ‘Dropbox Studios’ – minimalist spaces where employees can meet for face-to-face collaboration when necessary.

“The last few months have proven that people can do that and still be productive,” Tran said.

“We have taken the learnings of the past few months into a model that will hopefully be the best of both worlds – by enjoying that flexibility, while still maintaining an avenue that will allow them to maintain that culture and community in a physical sense.”

Agile in the time of COVID

It’s an ambitious move in a time when companies have leaned on agile’s closeness to survive the pandemic, and its business and interpersonal climate that has come to be referred to as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).

“Because so many employees were working from home, the potential for miscommunication was high,” noted Richard Pharro, CEO Of global training firm APMG, “so I had to make clear what our priorities were and, at the same time, project confidence, strengths and positivity amongst teams and employees.”

The company built agile teams focused on specific areas such as social media management, learning platform development, and video creation – fostering cross-functional collaboration and nurturing both practical skills and soft skills like self-organising, growth mindsets, adaptability, and the ability to work collaboratively.

As VUCA persists through COVID normal, willingness to experiment with new models will be critical in deciding which companies thrive and which continue to struggle.

Fighting the tide by restricting change, a team of Forrester analysts recently advised, can be counterproductive.

“If organisations react out of fear, they may perceive new operating model practice as too risky,” the analysts write, “and there may even be a desire to reverse such changes.”

“However, we think that the safer response is to fall forward into the product team model; siloed teams perform even worse when everything is remote.”

When agile goes agile

In that sense, pivoting to COVID-19’s new normal may be agile’s biggest test yet – but past organisational inertia could be a real challenge.

While 63 per cent of human resources executives have embraced agile reinvention, a recent Gartner survey found 78 per cent admitted they have no defined strategy for actually making this happen.

Building and maintaining an agile organisation was already tough before the pandemic – but if not correctly handled, it could easily handicap the very innovation structure that has helped many companies thrive throughout the pandemic .

Dropbox’s new strategy acknowledges the challenges posed by the change from a continuous-collaboration model to a virtual one.

And while she readily admits the plan is “untested and uncharted territory”, Tran says the company is approaching the Virtual First model “like product development” – iterating from an initial concept and even open-sourcing the model as a Virtual First Toolkit.

Going virtual “in theory, means you can hire a lot more people in places where you typically don’t have offices,” she said, acknowledging that “it will be a radical mindset shift in terms of how we think about working and projects, and what we deem to be necessary for something to be successful.”