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Managing a remote team while staying Agile

Hot tips for DevOps leaders

managing a remote IT team
  • Highly collaborative DevOps teams face different challenges in shifting to remote work
  • IT managers need to reset productivity expectations
  • Greater transparency with communication will boost accountability

Managing remote teams is now an urgent challenge for thousands of companies. Within IT organizations, it’s a double whammy. Not only do many managers need to acclimate to the basics of remote work, they must also accommodate the special workflow and communication dynamics of DevOps and Agile-driven organizations.

After all, nearly half (48%) of all workers at technology companies rely on intensely collaborative Agile and DevOps methodologies to do their work, according to the 2019 State of Agile Report. While both originated as software development strategies, DevOps emphasizes continuous collaboration between developers and IT operations, and Agile teams engage in rapid-fire sprints to accelerate product delivery.

“Losing physical proximity for a core mass of the group affects a fundamental tenet of Agile and DevOps—fast feedback,” says Joseph Ours, DevOps practice lead for Centric Consulting. “Managers have to find ways to reinvent this capability to sustain the level of productivity teams are used to.”

Here are a handful of strategies that Ours and other experts recommend to help managers ease developer teams (and themselves) through this transition.

How do I set up effective team communication?

To replicate face-to-face collaboration, some team leaders might rush to encourage constant communication across every channel—video conferencing, chat, phone, text. That can result in crossed signals and confusion.

Ours recommends that managers set clear rules of the road for team communication. For example:

  • Video conferences: Establish a regular time for daily standups and for end-of-day retrospectives.
  • Chat: Encourage teams to be consistent users of Slack, Jira, or Trello for most daily communications. Ask team members to provide regular status updates about their availability throughout the day, since many are juggling new responsibilities at home.
  • Text messages: Reserve texting for urgent issues when people can’t be reached through other means.

Limiting video conferencing will take pressure off employees who are dealing with cramped living conditions or grappling with new family responsibilities during work hours.

Managers can also experiment with digital collaboration tools. Virtual whiteboards like Miro and Retrium are popular with Agile and DevOps teams to brainstorm, visualize problems, and launch new projects.

But keep it simple. “You have to make the tools easy to use,” advises longtime HR tech expert and consultant Josh Bersin. “Nobody has time to learn how to use ten different platforms to get their work done: err on the side of simplicity and integration.”

How much should I push?

For engineers and software developers, the pressure to meet release deadlines and minimize system downtime will be more intense than usual. But many managers thrust into remote roles for the first time need to fight a common first instinct: to assume their teams aren’t working hard enough.

[Read also: Josh Bersin on how HR teams can lead during the pandemic]

“When teams go fully remote for the first time, many managers feel like the team is slowing down,” says Ours. “One reason is lack of transparency, which creates a perception that someone is not delivering fast enough to meet internal expectations.”

To navigate that challenge, managers should factor in an initial adjustment period, as workers get their footing in new work environments. Team leaders who are accustomed to a very hands-on managing approach may also need to learn to back off. Virtual micro-managing, adds Ours, will only exacerbate productivity challenges.

How can I avoid costly communication breakdowns?

Agile and DevOps teams rely heavily on workflow coordination. The challenge is that remote collaboration can foster communication blind spots. Amid dozens of emails, chat messages, and competing time-sensitive priorities, some may fall through the cracks. Factor in unexpected crises and distractions, such as parental responsibilities and health issues, and those cracks could become wider.

As a manager, you will have to promote accountability more than usual. During daily video standups, for example, make sure team members are clear and vocal about who owns key tasks. It’s also a good idea to be extra vigilant about text documentation of task requirements and other records of the work being done.

At the end of the day, transparency supports accountability.