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When the pandemic hit, many companies were left to figure out how they could have productive teams with a distributed workforce. Software development teams were no exception. Now, over two years later, as more companies start solidifying their future work plans, it’s becoming more apparent that remote work is here to stay, in both fully remote and hybrid at-home and in-office forms.
Examining the last two years, we have seen that the ability to build products using agile methodologies — a very collaborative feat — is possible even when teams are remote.
So for founders, and product and engineering leaders, who are evaluating what building your company’s product and apps will look like in the so-called New Normal, here’s what I’ve learned in the past year and a half from consulting organizations that have built and brought to market new apps remotely.
How to build a better hybrid workplace
Choosing facilitators for meetings: Meetings via Zoom and other technologies require more work and preparation than in-person standups in a conference room. It’s useful to pick a facilitator upfront. That person should prep for that meeting and not wing it. There should be a defined agenda, and it should be shared in advance.
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Have feedback loops to assess value: At the end of meetings, there should be time dedicated to sharing feedback to examine if the work you are doing is serving you — or if you should be doing something else The Plus/Delta evaluation process is a tool for impromptu evaluations, and because we all know time is money, it’s helpful to use ROTI (return on time invested), too.
Set up a “virtual persistent office” for the team: Use virtual meeting platforms like Discord, Zoom Meetings, and other technologies that let your teams see and hear each other (rather than just read their communications). These apps allow for immediate collaboration for answering questions or working through a problem together just as you can in person. Coworkers no longer have to read each others’ calendars to determine if someone can collaborate on something that just came up.
Establish core working hours: Strive for core, overlapping hours when the entire team is available to work. This is especially important when your hybrid workforce is spread across multiple time zones. Schedule team meetings and plan collaboration during these core hours. This will optimize work times on products, and give engineers room to be hands-on with the keyboard. Then aim to schedule solo activities, one-to-ones and other activities outside of those core hours.
Provide detailed documentation: Embrace the use of digital whiteboards like Miro that have sticky-notes features to facilitate remote collaboration and offer an easily referenceable record for newcomers. This helps teams replicate the value of an in-person workshop with a digital whiteboard that everyone can reference individually, keeping all your work in one place. Also, encourage team members to create Personal User Manuals. These online documents can be used to learn each others’ personal preferences, values, and habits. The goal is to understand one another better so everyone can work together better on an ongoing basis. Knowing how each person ticks will help avoid possible obstacles and ensure stronger working relationships.
The hurdles of hybrid work
Pairing can be a challenge: Since many hybrid teams spend a great deal of time video-chatting and screen-sharing with teammates for extended, intense periods, it can be difficult to pull people away so they can stay connected with each other socially. That’s where core hours and team activities can help, along with implementing innovative techniques such as remote pair programming.
Having too many meetings: Finding time to do heads-down work now that there are more meetings can be difficult. With a hybrid workforce, companies need to be intentional about meetings, such as specifying agendas, goals, and providing reference materials in invites. We’ve found it helpful to gather feedback about recurring meetings; if they are ineffective, consider canceling or changing future occurrences.
Understanding norms and culture: At the start of the pandemic, remote onboarding was tricky, even painful. But, of course, this wasn’t the fault of any new team member. It was just the natural outcome of not knowing each others’ work styles and who reported to whom. Now it is imperative to develop in-depth onboarding guides not only for your company but for specific projects as well.
The future of software development for a hybrid workforce
As we get back to work, many of us won’t have regular access to that office water cooler anymore. Nonetheless, we can remain connected at the workplace as long as we are open to new techniques and technologies.
We must be intentional about how we work. Once some (but not all) are in the office, we should ensure all coworkers are treated equally. Remote workers should be included in meetings and assignments — “out of sight” should not mean “out of mind,” or worse yet, “assuming the worst.”
Above all, companies need to maintain a philosophy of “one remote, all remote.” That means not privileging those colocated with information unavailable anywhere else. If a question is asked in a Slack channel, rather than answering that question in person, it should be answered in that Slack channel so everyone benefits from your information.
Be sure to take breaks together. Where we once might have played ping-pong, now we can use online tools such as card games, trivia games and murder mysteries. We try to do these things as a team to learn each others’ work styles and create a better working environment.
Of course, creating a New Normal workplace is an iterative process. After a while, hold a retrospective — have an honest discussion with your team about what worked and what didn’t. During that process, perhaps you’ll discover a way of working that suits your company and culture in ways you hadn’t imagined.
Joe Moore is a Sr. Staff Engineer and Consultant at VMware Tanzu Labs.
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