Tips for agile and devops teams in a hybrid work model

When teams are split between home and office, establishing some ground rules will keep projects moving efficiently.

Tips for agile and devops teams in a hybrid work model
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Many leaders are hoping that the worst of COVID-19 is behind us, and leaders are now considering their return-to-work policies, flexible working practices, and ongoing adoption of collaborating technologies. Will leaders support hybrid work, or will they require employees to return to the office full time?

According to one recent survey, 73% of employees seek hybrid-work environments where they have some flexibility in where and when they work. Another survey suggests that 39% of employees will consider quitting if organizational leaders force them back to the office full time. In a recent internal survey at Apple, 90% of respondents said they “strongly agree” with the statement “location-flexible working options are a very important issue to me.”

I collaborate with many CIOs working with their executive teams to successfully transition to hybrid models. Wayne Sadin, a board and CIO advisor, says, “The hybrid organization succeeds or fails based on its ability to make all three categories of people (office, remote, and hybrid) feel valued.” Martin Davis, CIO and managing partner at Dunelm Associates, agrees, “Critical to hybrid working will be finding ways to treat everyone equally.”

I also spoke with Bob Davis, chief marketing officer at Plutora, about how tech and business leaders collaborate with a hybrid-work model. He states, “The ability to maintain high-quality, efficient software delivery that delights customers and provides value to the business may have hit a speed bump when companies moved to a remote work style. But they were able to forge ahead as long as they had complete portfolio and pipeline visibility, smooth handoffs between teams, governance and compliance, and a system that facilitates collaboration, even in a distributed world.”

Success won’t just come from top-down policies and practices, and it will require leaders across the organization to implement new ways of collaborating with their direct reports, multidisciplinary agile teams, and cross-organizational workflows.

Here are some of my recommendations for hybrid work at technology organizations that focus on agile methodologies, devops practices, and site reliability engineering.

Treat hybrid work as a longer-term transformation

In April 2020 I shared seven best practices for remote teams that remain relevant to hybrid work. I suggested teams improve collaboration by adjusting agile ceremonies and increasing the level of documentation. For remote devops teams, I recommend a greater focus on risk remediation through shift-left testing and security practices. For distributed software development teams, I advise formalizing agile planning practices to develop road maps and deliver on customer expectations.

Although there are some commonalities between hybrid work and remote work with distributed teams, there are also several stark differences. For one thing, advocates of hybrid work hope to make it a sustainable way of operating that improves work-life balance, whereas remote work was a forced response to an emergency.

In that light, hybrid work should be considered an evolving, transformational process. Teams should hold regular discussions on areas of improvement and standardize behaviors and practices.

Here are my recommendations for agile development teams and devops organizations using a hybrid-work model.

Standardize and evolve communication protocols

Start by considering the intersection of business goals, workspaces, technologies, and work policies when considering how people collaborate in meetings. Aligning cultural norms and practices with hybrid work enables more productive collaborations between in-office and remote people. Some communication protocols worth considering:

  • Provide guidelines on when meetings are required and when other forms of asynchronous communications, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Atlassian Confluence, are more appropriate.
  • When meetings are required, schedule them at times aligned with all participants’ time zones.
  • Establish appropriate “no meeting” periods to enable developers, engineers, and other technologists to work productively and with fewer interruptions.
  • When working remotely, turn on video whenever possible so that you can visually participate in the conversation.
  • When facilitating a meeting, call on participants by name, starting with remote attendees. Don’t assume people will speak up on their own. People will be more likely to contribute if they know they will be called upon.
  • Always end meetings at least five minutes early so that people and events stay on schedule.

Centralize artifacts to make meetings more productive

When I speak to developers and engineers, one of their top concerns is the number of meetings they are asked to attend. Just being on a scrum team has at least three meetings per sprint plus daily standups, and there are likely other meetings to define backlogs, brainstorm solutions, and plan releases.

Before tackling the number of meetings, consider some basic steps to make meetings more productive. Creating meeting standards is even more important for hybrid work because less effective meetings can be energy draining for remote participants.

Here are three recommendations:

  • Require meeting facilitators to create an agenda for almost all meetings. Meetings like daily standups, sprint reviews, and retrospectives have standard meeting plans, but people scheduling brainstorming, change management, and other planning meetings should outline their agenda.
  • Record meetings and share in an organized repository. This way, people don’t have to be invited to every meeting. Those who want to be informed can watch the recordings. Furthermore, people can watch the videos more efficiently by skipping to pertinent sections or speeding up video playback. Missed a meeting? No problem, there’s a recording.
  • Document decisions and required follow-ups to reduce revisiting issues multiple times or having discussions with no conclusions.

Organizations that put more meeting disciplines in place are likely to see their effectiveness improve and the number of meetings reduced.

Boost site reliability engineering and test automation

Hybrid work is both an opportunity and a challenge in how people collaborate. Having integrated tools, workflows, and responsibilities helps ensure that agile product owners, scrum masters, developers, testers, security specialists, site reliability engineers, and IT operations people work productively and efficiently, whether in an office or remotely.

I spoke to Wayne Anderson, a principal architect in Microsoft Services’ CTO office for modern work, about how hybrid-work technology teams can improve their release cycles. Anderson focuses on testing and the role of site reliability engineers and says, “Your application stability is a reflection of how your team thinks about, plans for, and implements testing discipline and investment. As organizations move to site reliability engineering concepts, the single biggest change is that user acceptance testing moves from the quick checkmark on a production push to a real place where security, engineering fixes, instrumentation, and even performance can be seen.”

Testing practices sit between a development team’s innovations and customer experiences deployed to production, whereas SREs champion the responsibilities of reliable, high-performance, secure applications. Both disciplines use automation from test automation, AIops, and devops platforms to reduce toil, improve productivity, develop insights, and prioritize their work.

Connecting workflows, naming responsibilities, and increasing automation are keys to success for fast-paced hybrid-work teams. By assigning testing, security, reliability, and performance responsibilities and shifting-left their implementations, devops organizations can reduce major incidents, bridge calls, and war rooms. These practices help teams meet service-level objectives and avoid stressful meetings that are hard to organize when subject matter experts have flexible work locations and schedules.

When devops teams can improve productivity, increase reliability, reduce stress, and collaborate efficiently through a hybrid-work model, we’re more likely to see business leaders endorse flexible work schedules, locations, and personal preferences. That’s good news for technologists who view hybrid work as a step forward in improving work-life balance.

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