Software developers working from home: a necessary reality, particularly since corona
Lockdowns and hygiene regulations arising from the coronavirus pandemic have disrupted the organizational structure and established practices of many companies. Teams have been spatially broken up on an ad hoc basis and forced to continue to collaborate remotely from home across different locations. Especially in the field of product development, this was not an easy step to take for a lot of companies. After all, the pride of having an in-house product development department, a fact that is communicated as a marketing message, is also frequently associated with the idea that development teams are at their most productive when they work together closely in the same location.
Of course, this belief is based on rational thinking. The ideal scenario of a co-located development team offers companies a wide range of advantages:
- Team members communicate directly and instantly. That saves time.
- Decisions are made on the basis of joint considerations.
- Problems are solved together by incorporating the ideas of many employees.
- Work doesn’t have to be handed over as much.
- Desired results and objectives are defined and adapted in the course of agile collaboration.
- Various possible solutions to a problem are developed and compared.
- The produced results are tested iteratively in close cooperation with the customer.
Not a question of technology: anything is possible!
Working remotely from home, even in larger team structures, is nothing new for software developers, of course. It is a trend that was already happening anyway and has long been the working reality of numerous product developers in successful companies around the globe. The real reason behind co-location and its benefits becoming obsolete wasn’t actually COVID-19, but rather the rapid evolution of digital collaboration tools. These offer the potential for transferring the aforementioned benefits of agile product development to a digital space without losses.
However, project management software and digital communication and collaboration tools alone do not guarantee smooth, productive teamwork. The following three tips are intended to help you and your team optimize your collaborative work as product developers when working remotely.
Tip #1: Remote teamwork requires additional rules
Working to your own natural rhythm – that’s one advantage of working from home for some professional fields. However, completely flexible working hours are not practical in a team where one member relies on the other. Certain norms and arrangements that are a given in the office are not so easy to recognize and follow when working remotely. For example:
- When should the working day begin and end for everyone?
- When should breaks be taken and for how long?
- When shouldn’t I disturb my colleague’s concentration?
- When is it appropriate to contribute verbally or initiate a discussion?
Binding guidelines and ground rules must be laid down for such issues that have a decisive impact on the productivity of all team members. In a digital workspace, clear arrangements need to be defined in advance and accepted by all team members, managers, and leaders, including:
- During which core hours should all team members be available online?
- On which channels and in what form should short absences or offline periods, such as breaks or phone calls, as well as meetings be communicated?
- What is the dress code for video conferences or customer meetings?
- What fixed meeting dates have been scheduled for what topics?
- Who is responsible for and authorized to provide and update certain information that is relevant to all team members?
Tip #2: Strike a balance between communication, collaboration, and concentration
There is an endless number of communication tools out there. We probably all use a communication service such as Slack, Google Docs for sharing documents, a Scrum or Kanban board, an email program, a video calling service such as Zoom, and let’s not forget a telephone. While we can just go over to a colleague’s desk in an office setting, we have to opt for one of the many available channels to communicate our matter when working remotely.
To stop this from resulting in chaos and make sure every team member has periods of concentrated working time without being disturbed, clear rules must also be established with regard to communication:
- Which available channel should be used for what type of matters and what level of urgency?
- Which channels should only be used for emergencies?
- Which channels require an immediate response from the recipient and which channels only need to be checked at specific intervals?
- For what kind of matters should a group message be sent to several members and what arrangements can be made one-on-one?
- What matters need to be discussed as part of a team meeting?
It is important to make every team member understand that synchronous communication deprives everyone of their time management flexibility and ability to concentrate. For that reason, asynchronous communication methods should always be favored when in doubt.
Tip #3: It is worth investing in visualization
If you are increasingly using visual aids for your work as a product team in the office, such as
- impact mapping,
- story mapping,
- experience mapping,
- opportunity solution trees, or
- whiteboard sessions for brainstorming,
you should think about looking for a suitable software program that is able to optimally map the function you need. The most important thing with any whiteboard tool is that it should allow all team members to access it at the same time and work on it in real time while also being able to optimally simulate your choice of resources and methods, such as sticky notes or flow charts. Skimping on visualization and collaborative brainstorming tools is fatal in the long term.