With the massive shift being seen towards a hybrid work environment, developers may find themselves struggling to maintain proper collaboration with their teams. Feeling disconnected from other members of your team has the potential to hurt the overall productivity of the organization, however, there are several tools on the market today that work to tackle this very problem.
Shailesh Kumar, SVP of engineering and head of technology at ClickUp, explained that while the need for collaboration tools has increased since the pandemic, it is far from a new challenge.
“If you think about it, collaboration has always been a challenge because… most of these engineering organizations probably had a center in Europe, Poland, Ireland, or London, and then somewhere in Asia… and then maybe in the United States and Canada, ” he said. “So, the fragmentation was always there, it has just gotten to be a lot more now.”
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Kenny Johnston, product leader at GitLab, said that there are a few things to be cautious of. “At GitLab we famously produce an all-remote handbook and we talk about some of the dangers of hybrid… one of the ones that we call out is called proximity bias,” he said.
Johnston explained that this bias can occur when certain team members are in the same vicinity while others are not. He said that a way to combat this is to ensure that all important team communication takes place on a platform that is tailored for distributed teams, rather than primarily favoring in-person or synchronous communication.
Anique Drumright, VP of product at the asynchronous video communication platform Loom, explained that tools such as Loom allow hybrid teams to have those important conversations on a video platform while still maintaining the convenience of asynchronicity.
She said, “The power of asynchronous video is that you can convey your full emotions. You have body language and facial expressions, and it feels more like storytelling.”
Drumright said that offering team members this added context beyond just facts allows members of a hybrid team to internalize and understand the full message behind the communication.
Fighting the ‘proximity bias’
The ability to document information this way works to fight against the proximity bias that Johnston mentioned because every member of the team has the ability to view videos and take part in important discussions without that communication having to take place synchronously.
Kumar also discussed the fact that the way employees work has to change in order to make the most of a hybrid setting. He explained that this can be especially difficult for long-term developers who have been working in an in-person setting for their entire careers.
“It is definitely different now, and that’s where companies have to look at platforms like ClickUp because we cannot maintain the same work habits and still expect them to work… organizations can maintain and even accelerate productivity if they change a little bit,” he said.
Jason Beres, SVP of developer tools at Infragistics, also spoke about this need to rethink the way development teams work. He said that Slingshot, Infragistics’ application that combines data analytics, project management, chat, goals, and strategies, could help with the transition.
“Every team spends a lot of time task switching and going from place to place… So, we brought something together into a single product that integrates with other tools,” Beres said.
He explained that different teams at Infragistics use this tool to ensure that the entire organization has transparency into a project, no matter what branch of the company they belong to.
“We looked at how integrations between products and building these ecosystems through integrations work, so that’s really where Slingshot shines,” Beres said.
The importance of a singular platform
According to Beres, having a tool that allows for easy integration is important in a hybrid environment so that team members don’t feel as if one tool is being forced on them. He said, “Being able to use tools that can give this all-in-one [experience], plus a few integrations, it just really helps efficiency throughout the day.”
Johnston also discussed the ways in which GitLab as a tool can help to facilitate collaboration within a hybrid team. He said, “GitLab has mechanisms for ensuring that individual users that need to be informed about a change, are informed.”
He explained that GitLab allows for visualization into the entire process and enables team members to go back and track where certain commands or change requests came from in order to gain better insight into the background and thought process that went into making a change.
According to Johnston, GitLab also works to offer developers one centralized location to do all of their collaborating. “Developers are being asked to do more and more these days… and so they really need a collaboration tool that spans all of those tasks,” he said.
Like Beres, Johnston stressed that having multiple different tools can hurt an organization’s productivity because having to jump back and forth between the tools can lead to context being lost between them.
“Having a singular platform that has all of the data in one place, every user is on that platform, every user can collaborate and find things all under a unified interface really helps collaboration,” Johnston said.
Kumar also emphasized the importance of having a unified platform. “In a hybrid environment, the data silos and the fragmentation of applications makes it really hard to communicate and work together,” he said.
He went on to explain that, like GitLab and Slingshot, ClickUp offers users an all-inclusive platform for their applications. According to Kumar, when operating in a hybrid environment, it is vital to be using tools that are well integrated in order to facilitate heightened collaboration and, therefore, heightened productivity.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous
Drumright went on to discuss that there are several productivity and efficiency benefits that come with an asynchronous video communication tool, such as Loom, as well. She said, “[With Loom] I probably have 90 minutes to two hours more of actual, deep work time a day than I did previously, and I think it’s the nature of not every single conversation needing to be scheduled.”
She explained that platforms like this help to give developers back their time because team members are not constantly being pulled into meetings and having their current work derailed.
Additionally, Johnston spoke about the importance of being able to differentiate between topics that should be talked about synchronously as opposed to those that can be tackled with an asynchronous tool.
“We always start with asynchronous and try to answer it that way first… we’ll have developers start in Slack and then say ‘hey I would love to pair program with you, let’s jump on a Zoom call,’” he explained.
However, ClickUp’s Kumar believes the opposite is true. Kumar said that in order for asynchronous communication to be effective, synchronous collaboration has to happen first. He explained that it is important for everyone to connect as a team in order to fully understand their tasks before breaking off and working asynchronously.
“You need to set the context, you need to have the initial discussions and kickoffs using a platform like ClickUp where it can be done synchronously, and from there you can start working asynchronously,” he explained.
Yet Johnston said that by utilizing asynchronous communication tools first, issues are often resolved before synchronous communication becomes necessary, which ultimately works to save time and leads to heightened productivity in the long run.
Communicating asynchronously also allows developers to be more in control of their own time. Drumright said, “If I’m creating something in a time that’s convenient for me and then you’re digesting it in the time frame that works for you… it becomes a really powerful tool for efficiency, collaboration, flexibility, and overall connection.”
Drumright echoed Johnston, saying that using asynchronous communication first is highly beneficial. She explained that important explanatory information can be shared with a quick video message and then that information can be debated and discussed further in a live video call until a solid conclusion is reached.
Jennifer Dennard, co-founder of collaboration software provider Range.co, believes you need to strike a balance in how you communicate. “There’s real value in building a foundation of asynchronous communication, where folks can get the information that they need to be empowered in their work, particularly on teams that are split across time zones, especially large time-zone divides, like India and the United States. It’s really hard to create meetings that don’t interrupt people’s personal lives. And so when you create a habit of sharing information asynchronously, it starts to build a foundation where people can search, they can find the right links and find information and answers to their questions.”
That, she said, can be done through written check-ins, through documenting meeting notes, and project specs. But, she acknowledged, there’s also real value in live communication. “You can’t deny the truth that it’s powerful to engage that the back-and-forth that you can have and that the emotions that sometimes need to be discussed are really powerful to do live.”
She explained that Range facilitates running a meeting and documenting the meeting notes, which helps to ensure that people who couldn’t attend still get that information. “Or, if you’re prepping for the meeting, you can see what happened last time and get the doc on the topics and things like that,” she added. “And so we really encourage assessing the purpose of what you’re trying to do and seeing whether that’s best done async or synchronous. And sometimes it means kicking off synchronous, and then going async. Sometimes it means sharing a bunch of context async and then having a quick 15-minute chat. It depends on what problem you’re trying to solve at the moment.”
Range is building out playbooks and recommendations for things like a brainstorm that you can kick off asynchronously, do a little bit of live communication, and then do asynchronous again. That’s one of the processes people can run through, she said.
Working with scattered teams
Asynchronous communication becomes even more important when working with teams that are scattered globally and working in several different time zones.
Beres said, “The only way that this works is if you have a platform that not only promotes transparency across projects and teams, but allows you to communicate.”
He said that utilizing a tool like Slingshot that allows for full transparency helps to foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment. When the development team has access to what is going on in other parts of the business, it fights against the feelings of isolation that sometimes come with hybrid work.
“Now, I actually have more meaningful meetings with our teams and I do feel that we are actually closer together because we have these digital tools,” Beres explained.
He also mentioned that there is a learning curve that many developers are still getting a grip on when it comes to determining when to use asynchronous communication methods. He said that it ultimately comes down to the role you are in and the complexity of the problem.
“I think that developers already have a natural tendency to use something like chat to ask for help or communicate with people, but I think it is really down to the individual to kind of adapt and learn with their co-workers and these useful tools,” Beres said.
Not all communications need to last forever
Kenny Johnston, product leader at GitLab, has a strong belief that not all communication has to be accessible forever. He said that there is a good amount of impermanent information being exchanged that only works as exposition for the overall point being made.
This kind of explanatory information is really only useful for a certain period of time, therefore, according to Johnston, it should only be accessible for that period of time.
“The primary mechanism that we see developers using is this move to defining more things in writing both in source control and documentation,” Johnston said. “Using more ephemeral tools where you know the communication will go away is good for that low latency communication.”
According to Johnston, Slack is a good example of this kind of tool because of the option it gives users to set a time frame for messages to remain visible on the platform.
Johnston also mentioned that when using this type of tool, it is important to document the end results of the conversation in a more permanent place so that the whole team can then access that information.
“We have a very low retention time on our Slack because we want to make sure that team members understand that [Slack] is not for anything permanent… and most dialogues should end with ‘okay I’m going to update the issue as a result of this discussion,” he said.
This short term communication also helps in the pursuit of intentional communication. Putting thought into the permanence of the information you are relaying causes you to take a second and think in order to be sure that the correct information is being documented in the correct way, resulting in more purposeful communication.
Johnston also explained hybrid teams are only successful if the entire organization adapts to this change and does their part. He said, “It’s about being very intentional in using those common and shared collaboration tools as opposed to taking advantage of proximity.”