BBD’s six tips to a strong distributed development culture

Part three of the distributed development series

Johannesburg, 08 May 2020
Read time 6min 40sec

Underpinning the fundamental principles and necessary tools for a successful distributed development model is the need for a cohesive and inclusive culture. With teams across Bulgaria, Cyprus, India, Netherlands, Poland, South Africa and the United Kingdom, BBD, a custom software development company, deeply understands the necessity for developing a culture that both adapts and thrives across distributed teams.

As the third in this series, we look at six essential tips from BBD’s experience to help build such a culture.

1. Allow easy collaboration

BBD has found the use of peer programming not only allows for efficient code creation, but also works as a good solution for the members of the team to develop trust in each other’s skillset, all while building camaraderie. Stephen Khabo, an executive at BBD, says that when you use this alongside other initiatives (such as virtual hangout rooms, ad hoc online gaming sessions or a Friday drink together) you’re able to develop the relationships within your team. He strongly recommends not forcing participation in ad hoc social events, as the goal is to build a culture where your people want to be there to socialise with each other.

2. Communication is crucial

Khabo outlines how encouraging informal and formal communication alongside check-ins is another key aspect in developing bonds in your team. “It’s important, though, that the communication is honest and comfortable. No one should feel like they need to hide fatigue. The beauty in this distributed model is that if you do need to sleep in and miss a stand-up, for example, you can easily slot right back in if you have the right processes in place.”

George Hakim, a BBD distributed lead and business analyst, says for his team, the “vibe” in the tools used for communication is also important to consider. “We have core working hours within our team due to the nature of our client’s business. Because of this, we can often get locked into the seriousness of ticking tasks off our lists within our own work bubble. To counteract this, I look for ways to add excitement into shared spaces.”

A lot of this comes down to using the features available on the team’s preferred tools. “We sit in front of our screen day in, day out. Ask yourself, how can I make this more engaging for my team?” One such method that Hakim employs is through Zoom rooms. To mimic the organic social interaction that people have when co-located, these free-flow spaces allow for non-work or work-related chats, storytelling and a bit of good-natured teasing. “My team pops into these rooms when they feel like they need some social interaction. Giving them this option to flit in and out encourages them to focus when they need to, but chat when they need a break as well.”

Khabo does something similar using Discord, where his team has a virtual open room, which they use as a pause area in between periods of heavy focus. He says that “to help support my teams’ needs within this distributed model, we use the time in between tasks to bolster bonds”.

3. Operate a virtual open-door policy

Typed messages can often mean the reader misses context. Khabo says it is important to find ways, using the myriad tools available, for your team to “grab you for a cup of coffee or catch you up on what’s happening in their roles and lives”. Hakim and Khabo agree that a big part of leading a distributed team is taking the time to catch up with the individuals and responsively motivating them. Sometimes it’s personal, other times not, but this is a valuable step in building teams that have a solid foundation in trust.

4. Establish general work-life balance

As Hakim explains, BBD teams show incredible dedication to their fast-paced projects, but this can result in burnout or brain drain when people push too hard for too long – something especially easy to do during lockdown. To counteract this, he says that BBD keeps a finger on the pulse and embraces the flexibility distributed work allows. Khabo agrees and adds that sometimes his team members will take a couple hours off during the usual work week to decompress from an especially heavy deliverable, switching their brains off of work by sleeping, playing video games or interacting with their families. “This acknowledgement of natural rhythms and the effort our people put in has the added benefit of breeding loyalty, something crucial to making this model work.”

Khabo points out that it can be easy to take for granted the ‘over and above effort’ that team members put in to ensuring deadlines are met because of how busy everyone is. Recognising and then showing gratitude, even by simply saying “thank you for going the extra mile” to individuals and the team after a highly pressurised deliverable, goes a long way to letting your team know that their efforts are seen and valued.

5. Acknowledge the reality of Zoom fatigue

“In our team, we acknowledge the necessity of time away from our screens. It’s not natural to sit looking directly at people for hours on end as we do in video calls, so meeting-free Fridays, and limiting a meeting’s duration can help to keep the team focused and positive,” rationalises Hakim.

6. Bringing it all together

For BBD, Khabo explains, they have found that distributed development is the model of choice for many of their employees because it allows team members to be in a space where they feel the most productive. Hakim adds that this creates a culture of high performing teams and, for him, “high performing teams become responsible teams”.

Hakim goes on to explain that in agile development there is a concept of self-managed teams, which is generally easier to manage within the more common office-based environment. With the move to a distributed way of working, however, teams have to operate at a very mature level. He refers to this as 'self-managed individuals' rather, where “you trust your team members to continue to perform and deliver on their own”. In this way, as your teams move into the high performing and responsible category, you’re able to develop the level of trust necessary to make this model truly effective. Reaching this level means your teams are mature in how they approach their work, and comfortable to openly talk through both challenges and victories together. This is the foundation of a successful distributed development culture.

In summary, building a strong company culture within a distributed development model requires a few key approaches in how you manage and operate as a team:

  • Breed collaboration between your team members;
  • Ensure open communication;
  • Opt for open-door policies;
  • Maintain good work-life balance;
  • Acknowledge the impact sitting in front of a screen has on you and your team members; and
  • Allow people to self-manage and work in their most productive manner.

This three-part series has taken a deep dive into the fundamentals of working in a distributed model, the tools and processes that are crucial to set in place and now the culture that’s needed to ensure continued delivery and staff loyalty. For more insights from this series, visit bbdsoftware.com/news.

BBD

A provider of custom software development and application design solutions, BBD’s 35 years of technical and developer expertise spans the financial, insurance, telecommunications, education and public sectors. BBD is an international custom software development powerhouse employing over 800 highly skilled, motivated and experienced IT professionals. BBD is 51% black-owned and a level 2 B-BBEE partner, with a 125% B-BBEE recognition.

www.bbdsoftware.com

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