Adjusting to Remote Software Development

Mar 12, 2020

Many technology companies are going remote—and abruptly—in attempts to combat the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Such a drastic change in the working environment can be a shock to the system of any company, but it doesn’t have to be. Below you’ll find some tips to help your company adjust to effective remote software development, and avoid the landmines encountered by your forebears in remote work 😉

 

Default to Actual Human Interaction Over Text-Based Communication

 

The business world is rife with text-based communication tools for teams. There’s email, GChat, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and numerous others. All of these tools are useful when used sparingly, but become detrimental to shared understanding when used as the default mode of communication on software teams. 

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Study after study after study has shown that communication and empathy degrade significantly when body language and tone are lost (for example, when moving from video-conferencing to phone, and from phone to text-based communication, respectively). And in a field where miscommunication and misunderstandings can result in days, weeks, or months of wasted work, it’s crucial that your team avoid the trap of doing the majority of team-level communication via text.

 

Unfortunately, it can be incredibly easy to default to using text-based communication tools when working remotely, as it’s easier to jot off a quick Slack message than reaching out to request and follow through on a Google Hangout or a Slack/Zoom call.

 

Encourage your team to avoid the impulse to rely exclusively on chat/email team-level communications, and to build the habit of using regular video conferences to clarify designs, prioritizations, and domain concepts and language. 

 

To Whatever Extent Possible, Align Your Working Hours With The Rest of Your Team

 

While a lack of working-hour overlap is a necessary concession in globally distributed teams, this lack of overlap should be avoided to whatever extent possible when teammates are in similar time zones. Why? Because periods of non-overlap can bite remote teams in rarely measured, rarely considered ways.

 

Consider that if you’re not available to your teammates and they need your input, advice, or domain knowledge, they’re likely to either a) wait for you, b) move forward by making assumptions they feel to be safe—an oxymoron—or c) switch to another task, which would seem to be an optimization, but which, well, isn’t.

 

Said another way, The Wait, The Piece of Unintended Functionality, and The Task Switch are three sources of software development waste that can indirectly result when your teammates’ working hours aren’t harmonized. Help avoid these wastes by aligning your team’s working hours to the greatest extent possible. 

 

Account for a Lack of Organic Team Interactions with Short, Scheduled Huddles Throughout the Day

 

When working in an office environment, you’re constantly benefitting from ad hoc conversations and interactions. You run into people in the common area, start discussions in the hallway, and pick up on non-verbal cues (your neighbor’s sigh, the enthusiastic spring in someone’s step)  When working remotely, you miss out on this passive information gain. Account for this loss by scheduling mid-afternoon and end-of-day huddles. You’d be amazed what information you think isn’t valuable enough to share, but which, upon sharing, ends up spurring valuable conversations around crucial domain concepts, and visual and programmatic design.

 

As with your daily standup, keep your updates brief, and scope them to information that’s relevant to the team’s work.

 

Hold Retrospectives At Intervals

 

Retrospectives are an excellent way of making sure a team’s pain points are surfaced and addressed in a psychologically safe and constructive manner. And given that a team’s shift to an all-remote, all-the-time workday can be jarring, you’d be doing your team a disservice to not conduct retrospectives as you go through the transition.

 

We created RemoteRetro.org, a free, open-source application for just such a purpose, and it guides teams through retros step by step, so it’s friendly to teams new to retrospection. And be sure to pair it with video teleconferencing, because human interaction, as mentioned above, is top-speed.

 

Go forth, and adjust thoughtfully!

 

Travis Vander Hoop is a Lead Remote Consultant at Stride Consulting, and maintains RemoteRetro.org in his spare time.

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