Agile software development teams thrive on collaboration and dynamic interaction, but in 2020, the sudden shift to remote work created concern among software engineering leaders that development velocity would suffer.
As many organizations look to transition to hybrid remote work culture, development leaders wonder if it will be possible for their teams to maintain effectiveness when working outside of the office long-term. Agile teams are inherently self-organizing and adaptive to change. Still, application technical professionals must possess a strong team culture of close collaboration, feedback loops, and dynamic interaction to stay effective in a remote environment.
RELATED CONTENT: Developers reflect on challenges, feelings about remote work in a pandemic year To maintain a successful and efficient small work team, software development leaders can champion six best practices:
Review the situation
First, review your remote team situation. Because we have lost the benefits of colocation, where constant interaction, easy pairing, and water cooler conversations aid teamwork, we need to address collaboration in other ways.
Set the tone in a remote environment by arranging a video conference with your team to outline how you communicate and collaborate when working remotely, evolve your team culture to solve small challenges, and adapt the way you work. Hold another video conference with your product owner to align the product, vision, and strategy. These video conferences help empower a team by agreeing to new ways of working and reinforcing purpose.
Every problem is a people problem — or at least, it has a people solution. Evaluate the degree to which your team possesses the essential skills for working together in a remote environment, which should include complex problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills, creativity, flexibility, and decisive judgment.
Engage as a team and focus on culture
Remote working is a skill that requires time and effort to develop. Video conferencing is a great way to engage with your team, but how many times have you been in a video conference with your camera off, your microphone muted, checking your email, or even making a cup of tea?
Reinforce simple rules for video conferencing etiquette, including:
- Be present. If you do not feel the meeting has value for you, decline the invite. If you do attend, be attentive and leave your camera on.
- Be human. Don’t be concerned that your children, significant other, or pets will invade your picture. Welcome this, as it shows that you’re human and faces the same challenges as everyone else. Stay on mute if you’re worried about interruptions.
- Be part of the team. If it’s a team call, don’t mute it. Team members want to hear feedback. Keep team lunches or after-work drinks on the schedule to maintain team culture — and leave your camera and microphone on, eat on the call and invite your family around to say hello.
Culture is frequently viewed as a barrier to effective collaboration, which becomes more challenging when working remotely. Here are a few ways to improve your remote work culture:
- Facilitate a short team workshop to evaluate your company’s values and align work to those values.
- Act in a manner you would like to see. Culture is what you say and what you do.
- Agree on values and a team charter to guide conduct and provide behavioral nudges.
- Demonstrate personal cultural leadership by committing to following these guiding values every day.
As development teams, we must continue to deliver value while working remotely, which may require some process tinkering. Make adjustments at every phase of the software development life cycle to be inclusive, build trust, and ensure everyone is heard.
We sometimes forget that we do the work is to solve a problem for our end users. Working remotely adds another barrier between product teams and the people they support.
To address this, we must refocus on helping the people who use our products solve their problems. Get closer to your customers, understand the work they wish to accomplish, and help them achieve it.
Foster openness and transparency
We must build trust in our remote teams based on mutual understanding and respect. Encourage openness with weekly small lunch events and virtual coffee breaks. Discuss everyday life, build empathy, form connections, and be clear on your intentions and reasoning.
Fostering transparency builds trust, enabling team members to take risks, admit mistakes, rely on each other, and improve together. Be understanding and empathetic when working with your team, but don’t value politeness over progress. Challenge behaviors that conflict with your remote working agreement and highlight potential issues early. Communicate openly, using reply-all on team emails and raising questions in your collaboration tool so everyone can contribute.
While remote, we must also continue to validate our work with real customers. Fast feedback is essential to enable agile teams to make rapid decisions and focus on the good features. Without in-person user testing, we must rely on technology solutions. Video calls, surveys, and usability testing are all ways to receive quick feedback. Everyone on the remote team should be involved with user testing to create a shared understanding and a better product experience.
Effective remote teamwork requires close collaboration over multiple open channels with individuals skillfully moving between technology tools. Developing good communication and collaboration habits is a great start, but small development teams must create a shared virtual space to succeed.
Match collaboration tools to desired behaviors to create a common toolset, form a sense of community, and maintain trust through team connection. Identify tools that can support the way your team works while prioritizing face-to-face interactions. Technology is rarely the answer, but it does provide the right platform to enable conversations.
Shifting to cloud-hosted development environments can also increase the team’s agility and resilience through flexible, shared, and always-available environments. Fully cloud-hosted development environments offer code, build, test, and debug capabilities. Teams that have already moved to a cloud-hosted development environment are realizing their value in a remote workplace.
Evolve your remote team practices
The agile process is built on the three pillars of the empirical process: transparency, inspection, and adaption. We must use these to continually evolve our working practices to improve the outcomes we produce for our customers.
Disruptive change is stressful. Keep communication lines open, schedule one-on-ones, check-in on people — but most of all, be kind to yourself and others. Your process modernization must be matched by a change in the way you organize your work. Your customers are unlikely to care about your process or product — they are more concerned about resolving their challenges and getting their jobs done. Your product is more likely to succeed if it aligns with their values and provides the best way to achieve their goals.
These six best practices of the remote team framework can help you reassess how to enable remote employees to remain effective. This framework has proven successful in supporting small product development teams and improving how they operate.
Gartner analysts will further discuss application innovation and software engineering strategies at the Gartner Application Innovation & Business Solutions Summit 2021, taking place virtually May 26-27 in the Americas.