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How to streamline dev team collaboration when working from home

At the beginning of July, Apple launched an ad about working from home under lockdown, and if you’re a developer, you’ll appreciate how funny and painfully accurate it is. Even though teams are now working from home to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, the pressure to perform is still there. Just like in the ad, you still need to be innovative and somehow deliver the big idea. Among awkward video conferences, family interruptions, and anxiety that the world might be coming to an end, remote dev teams still have to make things work.

From a certain standpoint, tech workers are fortunate because the COVID-19 crisis didn’t disrupt their business model too much. Before the pandemic, tech companies had already embraced digital transformation and were relying on remote collaboration tools occasionally. However, working from home wasn’t as widespread as it is today. Most companies allowed employees to work remotely, but it was rather an occasional perk, not a full-time thing. In the vast majority of cases, being at the office and having in-person meetings was the norm. Because of COVID-19, teams had to make a sudden switch to a full work-from-home model, which did create a bit of chaos in terms of collaboration. COVID-19 has also accelerated digital transformation across most sectors, so the fact that dev teams now have a heavier workload has generated added pressure.

So, in this fast-moving, uncertain, sometimes chaotic “new normal”, how do you streamline communication between development teams?

Be consistent in your use of collaboration tools.

Collaboration tools are the bread and butter of working from home. Without them, you’re only left with email to orchestrate everything, and we all know how ineffective that can be. But, for all their benefits, remote collaborations tools aren’t infallible. To maximize their benefits, you need to pick one tool that matches your organization’s culture and workflow and be consistent in using it. If you use one more tool than necessary, the information will be scattered all over the place, and you’ll end up wasting time putting everyone on the same page.

Whether it’s Jira, Slack, or Zoom, once you’ve settled on the right collaboration tool for your dev teams, you need to learn to take advantage of its features and use them strategically:  

Use chat rooms to group people from the same department or people who are working together on the same project. This will not only allow them to discuss project-related topics in a streamlined environment (maybe throw in some casual talk while they’re at it) but also give you a way of always reaching someone from that team.

In a well-run organization, you shouldn’t count on word-of-mouth to spread important information. This is where broadcasts come in handy. Most tools have such a feature, and it’s really useful because it lets you announce things to everyone, at the same time, so there aren’t any delays or inaccuracies. Use broadcasts to announce important updates that are relevant to the entire team, such as deadlines, events, and policy changes.

Sometimes, a topic is vast enough to include more than one chatroom, but not that vast to affect the entire company. In this case, creating topics is an excellent way of brainstorming. For examples, you can create topics for new projects, company priorities, or long-term targets.

You need video calls for important discussions.

For the most part, your teams can get along just fine by sending text messages on virtual collaboration tools. However, not every meeting can be an email. Some still require face-to-face communication or video calls in this case. And, while you shouldn’t occupy your team’s entire schedule with virtual meetups, you do need to schedule conference calls from time to time.

When exactly? Well, there are two important occasions:

  • Development processes that require a lot of interaction, such as event storming. These events are all about strategizing, so it’s important to maintain that human element. Discussing ideas fairs much better when team members see each other than when they read updates in the chat. To keep things streamlined, make sure you keep event storming sessions shorter than two hours and that you don’t invite more than seven people (you can include clients when necessary). Otherwise, they can become overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to use video calls as a substitute for face-to-face meetings. The first call might be a bit awkward until everyone gets used to the “protocol”, if you will, but the dynamics become much smoother afterwards.
  • Conversations that have a strong personal element, such as performance reviews and feedback sessions. The pandemic has been going on for a long-time, and things probably won’t change too soon, so you can’t postpone these discussions. You also can’t expect to have them via text messages, because people prefer discussing their feelings, expectations, and complaints face to face. So, when it’s time for a performance review or a developer wants to discuss a private matter to you, grab your mic and turn on your camera.

Use virtual teambuilding events to keep the team together.

Pandemic or not, teams need casual get-togethers to unwind and develop trust. And while the current social distancing guidelines don’t exactly favor game nights and meetups at the local pub or anything that falls under the category of traditional teambuilding, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find alternatives for these activities. In fact, in pandemic times, virtual team building is extremely important. A weekly happy-hour group call is not wasted time. In the absence of regular interactions, it’s a way for team members to bond, talk about what they’ve been doing, unwind, and, why not, maintain their sanity. Don’t forget that this period is extremely challenging for mental health. Your team is trying to work and innovate while stuck at home, balancing career and family duties, struggling with their own anxiety for what the future will bring.

Last but not least, remember to ask for feedback. The transition to the work-from-home model isn’t always smooth, and it’s reasonable to tweak things along the way. Ask your dev teams what’s working when they work remotely, what’s not working, and if they have any suggestions. After all, the phrase We’re in this together may be overused, but it’s still true.