When I said that remote work and virtual software development teams were here to stay at a conference on new forms of work during the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in autumn 2017, there was a look of hesitation on the faces of the audience. We could already see that the world was moving towards a more flexible way of organizing work, but we could never have predicted that the change would be so dramatic.
It seems a little unbelievable that two years have already passed since many companies closed their offices (at least for a while) due to the pandemic, and teams started working remotely overnight.
Now is an excellent time to take stock of where we are at by:
- analyzing how the last few years have gone for your company,
- cataloging what you’ve learned while adapting to hybrid work,
- strengthening practices that work well,
- change techniques that don’t deliver results.
As the Leadership Development Manager of the Helmes Group, I’ve been more aware of the specificities of hybrid work since spring 2020. Together with our software development teams, we’ve been looking for the best practices, processes, and management techniques to implement and develop to ensure that work can be successful remotely and in virtual teams and that employees feel good, supported, and engaged.
I’m sharing the discoveries and best practices we’ve learned. Hybrid work and virtual teams are indeed here to stay. Here are practical tips for developing models that support the efficiency, synergy, engagement, and well-being of virtual software development teams.
How to Successfully Manage Virtual Software Development Teams
1. It all starts with awareness
In the course of the experiment, we found that the teams that adapted more quickly to change were those that recognized that the new working arrangements required a new approach, actively experimented with different ways of working together, and deliberately engaged in conversations about hybrid working performance and support for individual needs.
There is no one hybrid working model that fits all, and the situation in the world is also changing fast. It’s crucial to support teams with the right mindset; change is normal, and quick adaptability and consistent experimentation will ensure success.
2. The psychological well-being of the team is paramount
Successful organizations are learning organizations – especially in times as volatile as these. Learning requires the courage to experiment, take risks and make mistakes. This is only possible in an environment where it’s genuinely safe to make mistakes, and everyone dares to be honest and vulnerable.
A team’s sense of security starts with the leader who leads by example, is open to feedback, and acknowledges their own mistakes.
3. Team-based hybrid working arrangements with freedom and responsibility
Autonomy, freedom, and accountability of the teams are the foundation of the culture and performance of Helmes. There is no need to prescribe hybrid working policies or rules with clear objectives and processes, priorities in place, and the right people recruited.
Support your teams so they will find their own models and write down the agreements. A jointly written ‘best practice of remote work’ (at what times are we all available, what channels we use to communicate, how often we meet, how quickly we expect responses, etc.) helps to minimize assumptions and mistakes and is also a sound basis for supporting the induction of newcomers.
It is worth looking at the principles of an activity-based office and analyzing the current habits of teams.
4. Conscious support for managers
The shift to hybrid working increased the workload and intensity of many managers. Organizations need to consciously support managers in adapting to change, investing in their development, and teaching them new management skills.
Some of the options we use are development programs for aspiring leaders, peer-to-peer learning (leadership club, learning partners, error-sharing discussions), and one-to-one work with coaches.
5. Consider the nature of work, not location
Virtual software development teams are often planned based on their home or office location. Instead, I suggest thinking about the nature of the work (individual focus, collaboration with others, or non-work social and fun activities) and planning the collaboration and the place of work accordingly.
It’s a good idea for all teams to discuss the key activities – what type of they are, how often they are done, and in what environment they are best done. Instead of thinking, “I work in the office on Monday, at home on Tuesday,” you should think, “team meetings are more effective in the office, but I can analyze better at home by concentrating in silence.”
You can think about the activities that could be planned together for the same day from there and that would need separate agreements within the team.
6. Spontaneity must be planned
It’s important to remember that spontaneous communication can diminish over time in virtual software development teams and needs to be consciously encouraged.
At Helmes, we encourage teams to have a fun team event at least once a quarter. Chat channels where people can share jokes and funny pictures also work well. It’s also a good idea to try a weekly ‘virtual coffee corner’ video call to talk about anything other than work or an online gaming night (e.g., Jackbox Games, Skribbl, etc.).
7. Employee well-being is a business priority
The COVID era has highlighted how important it is to look after the well-being of employees. Virtual work blurs the boundaries of the working day, and many find it challenging to maintain a good work-life balance.
The well-being of employees should be a priority for the company, not only in words but also in deeds. Start by introducing a regular well-being survey (e.g., on the CultureAmp platform); based on the survey results, focus on two to three specific issues and address them in-depth.
I recommend a three-level approach:
- raising the general awareness and supporting the well-being of staff (lectures, workshops, inclusive discussions);
- development of managers (one-to-one conversations, raising awareness of mental health, group coaching);
- cross-company strategies (setting well-being and inclusion targets, well-being survey, offering health insurance and sports compensation, home office ergonomics policies, etc.).
8. Supporting ergonomic home offices
Many companies offer home office support to their employees. However, financial compensation alone may not guarantee the ergonomics of a home office. I recommend writing down the principles of home office ergonomics and supporting well-considered choices.
9. Activity-based office
The function of the office changes over time. Above all, it’s important to come to the office for activities that are more productive in a shared space (e.g., planning, problem-solving discussions, brainstorming sessions) and foster direct communication and team spirit. Employees appreciate the flexibility and the opportunity to work where it suits them and their team best. It’s not necessary to get people back into the office.
Instead, you want to create an environment in the office where the teams themselves want to get together from time to time. It is worth looking at the principles of an activity-based office and analyzing the current habits of teams.
Changes to consider in office design:
- more areas that foster cooperation and free communication (corners with wiring boards, cozy rooms for chats, phone booths, coffee corners);
- team-based rooms that can be shared between several teams (introduction of a virtual booking system if necessary) + individual focus work areas;
- good audio and video facilities to make it as easy as possible for remote workers to be involved.
As the main work of Helmes is done by development teams that work closely together, we will keep the team-based rooms in the future and ensure a workplace in the office for every employee who wants it.
10. One approach does not fit all
Although remote work is already the norm for many, it’s essential to keep in mind that this manner of working does not suit everyone. Working remotely requires greater self-discipline and motivation. Also, not all employees have suitable working conditions at home. It’s also impossible to introduce the same remote working arrangements in all teams.
Employees and teams are very different – flexibility and a personalized approach are key.
11. Successful management of hybrid meetings
A mistake often made when chairing hybrid meetings is that people try to hold exactly the same meetings virtually as were previously held jointly in the office. Perhaps all these meetings in this form are no longer necessary?
Hybrid meetings require different preparation, arrangements, and organization. It’s important to think about the purpose of the meeting in the first place and plan the appropriate format accordingly.
Could this be done asynchronously, or do you need all participants at once? Should everyone participate via video?
Could the information also be shared, for example, in a newsletter or on the intranet? In some companies, hybrid meetings are conducted so that all participants join via their laptops, even if several people are in the meeting room together. This way, everyone joins the call with ‘their own face’ and is equally visible.
12. Software solutions
In addition to good audio and video equipment, it’s worth trying out different software solutions for virtual cooperation (e.g., Reetro.io, TeamRetro.com, and IdeaBoardz.com for team retreats; Jamboard, Mural, and Miro for brainstorming and planning).
13. Against Zoom fatigue
Video calls are tiring for the brain. The brain is not used to observing so many people at once. Watching a portrait video means that some of the information on body language is not received, watching yourself on video is exhausting, etc.
It’s essential to plan conscious breaks in the working day.
A good tip is to make an agreement (or internal IT default settings) that video meetings are 45 minutes instead of an hour. This length will give people time to rest their eyes and head and stretch their bodies before the next meeting.
Another great option is to introduce a no-meetings day in your company (it could be in the middle of the week).
14. Global access to talent – a threat and an opportunity
Multinationals have already realized that, as many people work remotely anyway, they can actually recruit from around the world. Estonian companies are now not only competing for talent with other Estonian companies but with all companies worldwide that allow hybrid work. It also means that we can recruit top people from other countries ourselves. Global access to talent is a positive opportunity for companies that offer exciting development opportunities and have developed a well-functioning hybrid work culture.
15. Flexibility becomes the new norm
Support for hybrid work and virtual software development teams is not just about how people want to work but also how they want to live. The coronavirus crisis has given employees flexibility and greater freedom to organize their work and lives around individual needs more humanely. This has become the new norm, and it’s up to employers to consciously support it.